Kelso was born into slavery about 1825, reportedly in Lynchburg, and was probably of mixed-race ancestry. Information about his early life is scarce. The date of his birth is not known, nor are the names of his parents, when and how he gained his freedom, when and how he learned to read and write, when he married, and whether he had any children. Kelso’s wife was named Sarah A., who may have been a few years older than he and was listed as blind in the 1880 manuscript census. One neighbor in postwar Lynchburg, Allan Kelso, who worked in a tobacco factory and had a son named Samuel, may have been his younger brother.
Kelso attended a state convention held by African Americans in Alexandria in August 1865, and later that year or early in 1866 began teaching in asponsored by the Bureau of Refugees, Freedmen, and Abandoned Lands. He also led a band performance for the June 1866 exhibition by the Freedmen’s Bureau schools in the city.
In the spring of 1867 Kelso tried without success to be elected to represent Campbell County in the Republican State Convention. On October 14, 1867, he and a white Republican, Samuel D. Williamson, jointly announced their candidacies for the two seats to represent the county (which included the city of Lynchburg) in the convention called to write a new state constitution. Kelso’s speech announcing his candidacy made a favorable impression on one of the people who reported on it for an unfriendly Lynchburg newspaper. On October 22, 1867, African Americans, in the first election in which they voted in Virginia, propelled Kelso and Williamson to victory. All but 9 of the 2,589 men who voted for Kelso and all but 13 of the 2,590 men who voted for Williamson were African American. Two white conservative candidates received more than 2,000 votes each, all but 31 of them from white men.
The convention met in Richmond from December 3, 1867, to April 17, 1868. The president appointed Kelso to the important Committee on the Basis of Representation and Apportionment and to the Committee on Internal Improvements. Kelso voted with the radical reformers on every major point. On December 14 he introduced a resolution that the new constitution “guarantee, for the future, a system of common school education, to be supported by the State, which shall give to all classes a free and equal participation in all its benefits.” The creation of the state’s first system of public schools was one of the signal achievements of the convention. Delegates defeated by a wide margin‘s proposed amendment to the article on public education to prohibit racial segregation of the new public school system. Kelso reportedly stated then “that he was in bad company” because white Republican delegates appeared less inclined to provide proper and equal educational opportunities for freed people than “gentlemen on the Conservative side of the house.”
Because a great many African Americans had recently moved their places of residence in search of jobs or family members, Kelso introduced a motion on January 20, that the convention request the commanding general of theto permit men to vote where they lived at the time of the proposed ratification referendum and not require them to vote in the place where they had registered to vote. Kelso served as chair of the small committee to make the request of the general and several days later reported to the convention that he had also met with General Orlando Brown, the head of the Freedmen’s Bureau in Virginia, who had approved the purpose of Kelso’s resolution. (Prior to the delayed July 1869 ratification referendum the army conducted a new registration of men qualified to vote in the referendum.)
On January 21, 1868, the convention appointed a committee to invite General Ulysses S. Grant, who was then in Richmond, to visit the convention. The president appointed Kelso to the committee, but one of the white delegates, Hugh H. Lee, refused to serve with an African American and declined the appointment. The next day when the committee called on Grant, the white members reportedly left Kelso in the hotel parlor and saw Grant without him. Even the hostile editor of the Richmond Daily Enquirer and Examiner thought that was out of line. “He is one of the most respectable looking negroes in the Convention,” the paper reported of Kelso, and added that he “dresses well, and is certainly as well worthy of respect as any negro that could have been appointed.”
After the convention Kelso continued to participate in Republican Party affairs. He was present at a party rally at the Campbell County courthouse in May 1868 when two white men, guns in hand, tore up an American flag and ordered an African American speaker to leave the platform, even as two county magistrates in the crowd refused to intervene. Kelso attended the party’s state conventions in March 1869 and November 1869, and was also a delegate to the January 1869 National Convention of the Colored Men of America, which gathered in Washington, D.C., to protest the denial of voting and other civil rights guaranteed by the recently ratified Fourteenth Amendment. That summer Kelso and two other Republicans ran for the three seats the new constitution allocated Campbell County in the House of Delegates. On July 6, 1869, they were defeated by threecandidates by a margin of about 500 votes out of approximately 5,650 cast.
Kelso continued to teach or resumed teaching and in March 1870 opened the term of his one-room school in Lynchburg with fifty-four students. He also conducted a night class for what he described as “the laboring portion of our People” who were as eager for education for themselves as for their children. Kelso evidently did not become a teacher in the new public school system he had helped establish. Perhaps because of his support of the Republican Party, in the spring of 1871 the post office hired him as the agent to transport the mail between the city’s railroad stations. About 1872 Kelso purchased a house and a half-acre lot at the southeastern corner of Eighth and Taylor Streets in Lynchburg. By 1873 Kelso was politically at odds with some local African Americans and other Republicans. At a party convention in Lynchburg in July a man charged him with supporting a claim of Virginia’s former governor. A newspaper reported that Kelso indignantly replied, “What! I support Henry A. Wise, the man who murdered John Brown, who was the first to endeavor to give me my freedom? Never! never!! never!!!”
Kelso died of heart disease in Lynchburg on December 4, 1880, and was buried in what is now known as the Old City Cemetery in that city.