Even the conservative papers remarked that a black man running for such a high office signaled a new era. He was, they said, “the coming man.”
No one was using the word “postracial” in 1876, but William Francis Yardley challenged the usual categories. He looked like a black man, though his mother was allegedly white. He was raised and educated by whites, but he regarded himself as black. A Maryville College graduate, he’d studied law, and was, before he was 30, a full-fledged member of the Knoxville bar, an elected city alderman, and a justice of the peace.
The activist attorney specializing in civil-rights work hung his shingle on Asylum Avenue, near Market Square. In the summer of 1876, Yardley attended a Republican convention in Nashville and left it in turmoil when he opposed laws banning biracial marriage and proposed that all references to race be removed from the state constitution.
What happened later that summer startled the state and maybe the nation. You wonder if one strange incident on Market Square that August might have precipitated it. At an oil-lit Republican rally, Yardley, who had a reputation as an eloquent speaker, was invited up to say a word about the outgoing sheriff, M.D. Swan. He’d hardly begun to speak before a black man jumped up on stage and interrupted him. “You shall not speak here, so get down,” said the interloper. Yardley began a polite response before another black man yanked him off the stage. It prompted a shoving fracas which the Knoxville Tribune assessed as “disgraceful in the extreme.” Some whispered white authorities had orchestrated the embarrassment, to discourage black participation in politics.
That summer the state seemed set to re-elect Democratic Gov. James Porter, former Confederate of Nashville. His opponents were mainly symbolic, one a half-hearted Republican, another a “political what-is-it.” On Sept. 1, after newspapers had already made their endorsements, W.F. Yardley announced his candidacy for governor.
His short but vigorous race—for nine weeks he campaigned statewide—drew national attention, and surprising responses. The New York Herald ran an editorial about the anomaly. “We advise Mr. Yardley to omit in his public addresses all reference to ‘my race,’” scolded the Herald. “Mr. Yardley is an American citizen, and appeals to his origins have no proper place in public utterances. In the North we hear occasionally of German candidates and Irish candidates, and we have frequently taken occasion to rebuke such narrow and clannish appeals for votes. Any candidate for office in this country must be an American citizen, and he cannot be anything higher than that. Appeals to ‘race’ or color in the South are fit only for demagogues.... We hope Mr. Yardley will on the stump forget he is a man of color.”
Behind the anxiety was the fact that in the pre-Jim-Crow South, the black vote was still formidable. Most Tennessee blacks were Republicans, and might have been assumed to vote for a fellow black Republican. But local black Republicans avoided Yardley. The Colored Hayes & Wheeler Club of Knoxville, named for the Republican presidential ticket, made a formal statement about their fellow Republican Yardley. He was, they declared, “a traitor to our race and to the Republican Party.... We... place before the colored people of the state the said W.F. Yardley in his true character—the character of a traitor and deceiver.” The local suspicion was that Yardley was an agent for the Democrats, and intended to split the vote for the Republicans to widen Porter’s lead.
Meanwhile, the Democratic Tribune, the more conservative paper which habitually boosted former Confederates and not necessarily civil-rights causes, found nice things to say about Yardley. They described him as “of a dark copper hue.” The Tribune rarely assessed candidates’ hues.
“He is a glib talker and makes a fair stump speech,” the Tribune noted. “The white man that [takes him] for a fool will find himself woefully mistaken.... It remains to be seen what view the white Republicans will take of Yardley’s candidacy. The probability is that a great portion of them will not feel like supporting him on account of his color, notwithstanding their loud professions of partiality for his race.” You don’t have to be a cynic to detect cynicism in the editorial, which concludes, “Yardley for Governor! Verily, this is a progressive age.”
The ostensibly pro-civil-rights Republican Chronicle was that year preoccupied with the return of Confederates to power. Former Confederate Gov. Isham Harris, the secessionist who had pushed hardest to get Tennessee to ally itself with the Confederacy, and who had fled the country to avoid imprisonment after the war, seemed poised to represent Tennessee in the U.S. Senate. The Chronicle was bitter about the prospect.
But the Chronicle didn’t boost Yardley. The paper raised questions about the sincerity of his ostensible supporters. A reporter noted that a Yardley rally at the Knox County courthouse on Sept. 5 drew prominent white Democrats. “Of the colored voters there were only a small sprinkling present, and from the way they expressed themselves afterwards the most of them were there out of mere curiosity.” In the saloons was dark gossip of bribery.
One of the other candidates dropped out just before the election. Porter won handily, as expected. Yardley was a distant third; Tennessee gave him 2,165 votes statewide, most of it apparently from West Tennessee. His hometown, which had elected him to both county court and the board of aldermen in the recent past, gave him six votes.
Did Knoxville’s vigorous civil-rights Republicans of both races size up Yardley as an arrogant young man, too radical for his era? Or did they have reason to believe he was a Democratic collaborator?
For almost half a century after his run for governor, Yardley continued to battle civil-rights issues out of his downtown law office, at least once arguing a civil-rights case before the state Supreme Court. His name remains the simple answer to trivia quizzes about the first black man to run for governor of Tennessee, but the complications of that strange autumn might fill a novel.