ENTRY

Lyons, Isaiah L. (1843–1871)

SUMMARY

Isaiah L. Lyons served in the Senate of Virginia (1869–1871) and was one of the first African American members of the General Assembly. Born in New Jersey, Lyons was raised in Brooklyn, New York, and worked as a clerk. During the American Civil War (1861–1865), he served in Virginia with the United States Colored Troops, finally settling in Hampton. In 1869 Lyons, who by then worked as a druggist, won election to the Senate by handily defeating a white candidate, Martin McDevitt. He then became the only African American member to vote against ratifying the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution. Although in the minority, Lyons reasoned that the assembly itself was illegitimate because most of its white members could not take the required oath stating they had been loyal to the United States during the war. He also voted against a provision that required racial segregation in the state’s new public schools but eventually supported the bill. Lyons died at his home in Hampton in 1871 from the effects of illnesses acquired during the war.

Early Years

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.

Fort Monroe

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 at Fort Monroe in Virginia later that autumn. While on duty at Chaffin’s Farm in New Market Heights near Richmond in August 1864, Lyons contracted typhoid fever and malaria. He was hospitalized 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.

Political Career

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.

George Teamoh

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, George Teamoh, 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 member of the U.S. Senate, Lyons nominated an African American, Dr. J. D. Harris, 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 other Republican members 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.

Educational Progress in Virginia—The Schools for Colored Children in Richmond.

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.

Death

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.

MAP
TIMELINE
ca. August 23, 1843
Isaiah L. Lyons is born in Monmouth, New Jersey.
ca. 1847
Isaiah L. Lyons and his family move from New Jersey to Williamsburg, Brooklyn, New York.
ca. 1854
Isaiah L. Lyons begins working as an office boy for a physician in Brooklyn, New York.
February 1860
The New York Weekly Anglo-African reports that Isaiah L. Lyons delivered an address at the third annual Williamsburg Lyceum.
March 10, 1861
Isaiah L. Lyons and Sarah Williams Robinson, a widow, marry in Brooklyn, New York.
September 4, 1863
Isaiah L. Lyons enlists as a hospital steward in the 6th Regiment, United States Colored Troops.
August 1864
Isaiah L. Lyons contracts typhoid fever and malaria while on duty at Chaffin's Farm in New Market Heights, near Richmond.
September 29, 1865
Isaiah L. Lyons is mustered out of service with the United States Colored Troops.
October 1, 1865
Isaiah L. Lyons joins the staff of the Freedman's Hospital in Hampton as a hospital steward. His wife is a matron at the hospital.
July 6, 1869
Isaiah L. Lyons is elected to the Senate of Virginia, representing Elizabeth City, Surry, Warwick, and York counties. He is one of the first African American members of the General Assembly.
October 8, 1869
Isaiah L. Lyons votes against the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution, the only black member of the General Assembly to do so.
June 7, 1870
Isaiah L. Lyons joins five other senators in an unsuccessful attempt to eliminate segregation in public schools bill.
June 13, 1870
Isaiah L. Lyons votes with majority to pass the bill establishing free public schools in Virginia.
February 11, 1871
Isaiah L. Lyons attends the Senate of Virginia for the last time.
February 21, 1871
Isaiah L. Lyons dies of heart disease at his home in Hampton.
FURTHER READING
  • Jackson, Luther Porter. Negro Office-Holders in Virginia, 1865–1895. Norfolk, Virginia: Guide Quality Press, 1945.
CITE THIS ENTRY
APA Citation:
Salmon, Emily & Dictionary of Virginia Biography. Lyons, Isaiah L. (1843–1871). (2021, February 12). In Encyclopedia Virginia. https://encyclopediavirginia.org/entries/lyons-isaiah-l-1843-1871.
MLA Citation:
Salmon, Emily, and Dictionary of Virginia Biography. "Lyons, Isaiah L. (1843–1871)" Encyclopedia Virginia. Virginia Humanities, (12 Feb. 2021). Web. 28 Nov. 2021
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