back to previous

Edmund Kelly Historical Marker

  • 218 East 8th Street
  • Columbia, TN 38401
  • Overview

    Columbia native, minister and writer, Edmund Kelly, who met with two U.S. Presidents, was born into slavery, the son of an emigrant from Dublin, Ireland and Kitty White, who was born in Columbia, TN.  At age 16, Kelly was hired out to the headmaster of a local boy’s school to run errands and wait tables.  With a strong desire to learn to read, he paid the boys who attended the school for the use of their books. Kelly was ordained by the white Concord Baptist Association in 1842 and was one of the first African Americans to be ordained in Tennessee.  He was the co-founder and first minister of the Mt. Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church in 1843 . In 1853, his owner gave him permission to leave Tennessee because she was having financial difficulties.  For this privilege, he paid his owner $10 per month with money he earned working as an evangelist for the white Baptists in Tennessee.  A few years later, he purchased his wife, Paralee Walker, and their four children and settled in New Bedford, MA. President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in January 1863. In the spring, the War Department organized the Bureau of Colored Troops and began a massive army recruitment program aimed at free blacks in the North and emancipated slaves in the Union-held Southern territory. Kelly believed that the formerly enslaved should join the fight for their freedom and published the pamphlet, “The Colored Man’s Interest in the Present War.” He wrote “I sincerely trust the colored people will never wait to be drafted, but volunteer to a man….because the colored people have more at stake than the white people; while the white people hazard their civil and political rights, the colored people lose both and their freedom besides.”   In August 1863, Kelly was with a delegation of African American ministers from the American Baptist Missionary Convention who met with President Abraham Lincoln to get permission to cross the Union lines to minister to the formerly enslaved who were living in the Union camps.  After this meeting, Kelly sent a letter with a copy of this pamphlet to President Lincoln. Both the letter and the pamphlet can be found with the Lincoln Papers at the Library of Congress. Kelly’s son, William D. Kelly, fought with the 54th Massachusetts Regiment during the Civil War.  More than 400 African Americans from Maury County volunteered to serve in the Union Army with the United Stated Colored Troops. The Thirteenth Amendment passed in the Senate on April 8, 1864 and in the House of Representative on January 31, 1865. In April 1865, President Lincoln was assassinated and Andrew Johnson became President of the United States. In August 1865, a few months before the states ratified the Thirteenth Amendment, Kelly was with a delegation of Baptist ministers who met with President Andrew Johnson.  The primary purpose was to 1) pay their respect to the chief magistrate of this great nation; 2) to assure him of their hearty corporation; and 3) to remind him of the fact that they had not forgotten his promise to be their Moses. Toward the end of the meeting, President Johnson cautioned the delegation about their “overleaning northern proclivity.” Johnson told the delegation “…equality is in the future…and how it was to be brought about was yet undecided…We have entered on the first step, commencing with the emancipation in our midst. If this fails, the second alternative will be a separate colony, where there will be equality under the same government.” After this meeting, Kelly wrote, “As the result of all that I have seen and heard, I believe President Johnson’s want of faith in the immutability and ultimate triumph of right over wrong prevents him from giving the colored people a fair chance in the race, the first division of which, as he states, we have entered. We do most heartily commend the President to the affectionate remembrance and prayers and well wishes of all Christians, and to the American people; first that he may become a Christian, and secondly that he may be convinced that not anything is expedient that is not right; that to do right is our duty, leaving the consequences with God.” The states ratified the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution of the United States in 1868 and 1870, respectively. Section 2 of the Thirteenth and Fifteenth Amendments reads, “Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.” Section 5 of the Fourteenth Amendment reads, “Congress shall have power to enforce, by appropriate legislation, the provisions of this article.” Kelly believed that these sections should read, “Congress shall make all needful laws to enable the executives to enforce the provision of this act. In his 1876 pamphlet, “Appeal to Lovers of Freedom, Righteous Progress, and Christianity,” Kelly wrote, “…select and vote for such men only as are willing to guarantee to the colored people all of the rights embodied in the amendments; such being the result of the war.” Kelly traveled extensively, preaching and organizing churches and schools in different States in the Union including Tennessee, and was considered one of the greatest organizers of his day.  He died at age 77 and is buried with his family in New Bedford, MA.  In October 2021, the African American Heritage Society of Maury County placed an official Tennessee Historical Commission Marker for Reverend Edmund Kelly at the Mt. Lebanon Missionary Baptist Church located at 218 East 8th Street in Columbia, TN. Edmund Kelly’s legacy continued through his children and grandchildren. Next week’s article will feature Edmund Kelly’s son, John Henry Kelly, who, although raised and educated in the North, chose to come to Tennessee and became the founder of the first public school for African Americans in Columbia, and organized the Maury County Colored Teachers’ Institute. Author - - Jo Ann McClellan, Maury County Historian and  African American Heritage Society, President