Isaiah Leonard Lyons was born on or about August 23, 1843, in Monmouth, New Jersey, and was the son of a laborer, George Lyons, and Mary E. Lyons, who was a washerwoman after her husband’s death in the 1850s. When he was about four years old the family moved to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York. Lyons attended local schools and about age eleven he began working as an office boy for a physician in the town. Three years later he went to work as a clerk for a local African American druggist. In February 1860 Lyons’s name appeared in print for the first time. The New York Weekly Anglo-African reported that he had delivered an address at the third annual Williamsburg Lyceum. On March 10, 1861, Lyons married a widow, Sarah Jane Williams Robinson, in Brooklyn. They had no children, but looked after a boy called Reuben Lyons, who had been born in Virginia about 1858.
After the U.S. Army allowed African Americans to join, Lyons enlisted as a hospital steward in the 6th Regiment, United States Colored Troops, on September 4, 1863. The enlistment records described him as a druggist, five feet six and a half inches tall with hazel eyes and a light complexion. The regiment was stationed atin Virginia later that autumn. While on duty at Chaffin’s Farm in New Market Heights near in August 1864, Lyons contracted typhoid fever and malaria. He was at Fort Monroe for much of the time from then until he was mustered out on September 29, 1865. His wife had become a matron at the Freedman’s Hospital in Hampton, and Lyons joined the staff as a hospital steward on October 1. He continued to work there for the next two years and also opened a drugstore in Hampton.
Appointed one of the registrars of voters for Hampton prior to the 1869 elections, Lyons ran against one of the white registrars, Martin McDevitt, for the seat in the Senate of Virginia representing the counties of Elizabeth City, Surry, Warwick, and York. On July 6, when most African Americans in the district voted for African American candidates and most white voters voted for white candidates, Lyons defeated McDevitt by a vote of 3,003 to 1,671, with 230 votes cast for a third person.
As one of the first black members of the General Assembly in Virginia’s history, Lyons was the object of severe criticism from some of the state’s white journalists, who ridiculed his politics and his speaking style. One of his African American colleagues in the Senate,, later wrote that Lyons “was a very fine looking young man” as well as a “perfect gentleman, and a sound republican,” but that he was not a good public speaker. Lyons did not serve on a committee during his sixteen months as a senator. Very early in the first session in October, when the Senate chose a , Lyons nominated an African American, Dr. , also of Hampton, who received only three of the forty-three votes cast.
Lyons drew the most attention when he voted against ratification of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, which Congress had made a requirement before seating senators and representatives from Virginia. At the beginning of the session, he and the othermembers had objected that many white legislators had not and could not take an oath required by Congress stating that they had been loyal to the United States before and after the Civil War. Lyons consequently regarded the assembly as illegitimate and its actions as illegal. When the members of both houses of the assembly voted on October 8 to ratify the two amendments, Lyons therefore voted against them, the only African American member of the assembly to do so. That action drew criticism from northern and Republican newspapers but rare praise from the hostile Richmond Whig.
Lyons was willing to compromise on other issues. On June 7, 1870, he joined five other senators in an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate the section requiring racial segregation from the bill that created the state’s first system of free public schools. As a protest against racial segregation, many of the African Americans in the assembly voted against passage of the bill, which they supported and knew would be enacted. The Richmond Whig reported that Lyons would support the bill because of “his willingness to grant separate schools on condition that the colored schools should be taught by colored teachers,” and he voted with the majority on June 13 to pass the bill.
Lyons attended the Senate of Virginia for the last time on February 11, 1871, and died on February 21 at his home in Hampton. The cause was heart disease presumably brought on by the typhoid fever and malaria he had contracted during the war. The senators passed a resolution of regret at his death and adjourned for the day in respect to his memory. They also voted on a resolution to pay his widow for the funeral expenses, but after reducing the sum from $150 to $52 the Senate could not muster the required number of votes to authorize payment and it did not pass. Lyons was buried with full Masonic honors in Union Cemetery in Brooklyn. In 1897–1898 the bodies buried there were reinterred in Cedar Grove Cemetery in Queens, New York.