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Ford, Harold, Sr.(1945–) - Congressman, Family Background, Elected to Political Office, Chronology, Political Career Tarnished, Memberships and Awards

tennessee african memphis district

Harold Eugene Ford Sr. was the first African American to represent a Tennessee district in the U.S. Congress. Elected to the Congress in 1974 from Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District, which comprises the city of Memphis, he served the district for twelve consecutive terms until he retired in 1996 and was succeeded by his son Harold E. Ford Jr.

Family Background

Ford was one of fifteen children born to Newton Jackson and Vera Davis Ford. Ford’s father was the director of the N. J. Ford and Sons Funeral Home, which was founded by his grandfather on Beale Street. However, his grandfather only worked in the business for six months before his death. Refusing to let the business close, Newton took over the operation at age seventeen. It developed into one of the best known funeral homes in the Memphis African American community. In addition to working in the funeral business, for a brief period the elder Ford worked as a keeper of the Peabody Hotel’s famous ducks, which into the early 2000s continued to be marched ceremoniously from the hotel’s rooftop to the lobby fountain. It was during his stint at the Peabody that Newton met Vera Davis, who also worked at the hotel. Reared in modest circumstances, the Ford children attended the Ford Chapel AME Zion Church, named for their great-grandfather, Newton F Ford, who donated the land. After making the funeral home into a successful business, Newton Ford moved his family to the suburbs of Memphis.

In 1966, Newton Ford unsuccessfully ran for a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives. Two years after his unsuccessful bid for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly, Vera was named Delta Sigma Theta’s Mother of the Year for Tennessee and was first runner-up for the national title. All of the Ford’s surviving twelve children earned their undergraduate degrees, primarily from the state’s historically black public institution of higher education now known as Tennessee State University. Inspired by their father’s encouragement, several of the Ford children entered politics.

Harold Eugene Ford was born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 20, 1945. He received his primary and secondary education in the schools of Shelby County and graduated from Geeter High School (which was named after the parents of Ophelia Edna Geeter Ford, the mother of Newton J. Ford) in 1963. After graduating from high school, Ford entered Tennessee State Agriculture and Industrial University (now Tennessee State University) where he earned his undergraduate degree in business administration in 1967. A year later, he received the A.A. degree in mortuary science from Nashville’s John A. Gupton College of Mortuary Science. In 1969, he joined his family’s funeral business as a vice president and manager and became involved in politics. The same year that he joined the family business, Ford married Dorothy Jean Bowles on February 10, and they became the parents of three sons, Harold Eugene Jr., Newton Jake, and Sir Isaac Ford. In 1970, he entered politics as a Democrat and ran for a seat in the Tennessee General Assembly’s House of Representatives.

Elected to Political Office

Elected as a Democrat to the state House of Representatives in 1970, Ford served in the 87th and 88th General Assemblies, representing Shelby County’s District Five and then House District 86 until 1975. During his first term in Tennessee’s House of Representatives, he chaired a panel looking at utility rates and spoke against excessive late charges. In 1972, Ford was a delegate to the Tennessee State Democratic convention and to the national Democratic convention. After he served two terms, Ford’s work in the Tennessee General Assembly and the nation’s grappling with the Watergate scandal and improprieties within the Nixon administration emboldened Ford to seek election to the U.S. Congress against Dan Kuykendall, a four-term Republican incumbent, who had successfully defeated four opponents in the Republican primary. In addition, the 1972 redistricting gave the district a larger proportion of African American voters than in previous elections, and many political forecasters believed that the district would not remain Republican. Ford waged a tenacious get-out-the-vote campaign in the African American community. He ran on issues relating to education, fair housing, higher minimum wages, Social Security reform, and fair crime bills. At the same time, Ford went after the Republican incumbent as one with close ties to the previous Nixon administration. He also campaigned against the proposed five percent income tax surcharge recommended by President Gerald Ford. Although he received little help from most Democratic Party politicians, Ford was publicly endorsed by singer Isaac Hayes and Mayor Tom Bradley, an African American from Los Angeles. A month before the election, two white law enforcement officers of the Memphis Police Department beat and killed a young African American male. This ruthless killing and Ford’s ceaseless get-out-the-vote campaign galvanized the African American community and ultimately aided Ford in his election bid for the U.S. Congress.

Chronology

1945

Born in Memphis, Tennessee on May 20

1963

Graduates from Geeter High School

1967

Earns B.S. from Tennessee State University

1968

Attends graduate school, Tennessee State University

1969

Receives A.A. in mortuary science from John Gupton College

1970

Becomes vice president of Ford and Sons Funeral Home; wins a seat in the Tennessee House of Representatives, where he serves until 1974

1972

Becomes delegate to Tennessee state Democratic convention; becomes delegate to Democratic national convention

1974

Defeats Republican incumbent Dan Kuykendall

1982

Earns M.B.A. from Howard University in Washington, D.C.

1987

Named Child Advocate of the Year by Child Welfare League of America

1990

Indicted on bank fraud charges; proceedings end in mistrial

1993

Acquitted of charges

1996

Leaves the U.S. Congress; goes into private consulting

Political Career Tarnished

While serving in the 100th Congress, Harold E. Ford Sr. was indicted with co-defendants Karl Schledwitz, David Beaty, and David Crabtree on nineteen counts of conspiracy, bank fraud, and mail fraud following the 1983 collapse of the Knoxville-based banking empire of brothers Jacob “Jake” Franklin and Cecil H. Butcher Jr., both of whom were convicted. Because of financial transactions between Ford and the Butcher brothers, prosecutors claimed that they were political bribes. Officials within the U.S. Department of Justice asserted that the secret deals dated back to 1976 and intimated that one 1978 transaction was as a payment to Ford for his endorsement of Jake Butcher in his Tennessee gubernatorial candidacy.

At first prosecuting attorneys scheduled congressman Ford’s trial for the East Tennessee city of Knoxville, which was predominately white and predominately Republican. It was asserted by those associated with the Ford camp that the Knoxville site was representative of what some described as a Reagan administration political searching out and deliberate harassment of those on the opposite side of the aisle. Ford’s attorneys were successful in gaining a change of venue from Knoxville to Memphis, his home base where the population was approximately 55 percent African American. Those conducting the court proceedings on behalf of the people felt that because of the defendant’s political profile, along with that of his politically active family and the family’s funeral home business, that it would be impossible to seat an impartial jury.

Congressman Ford’s trial in Memphis federal court began on February 12, 1990 and ended with a deadlocked jury. The jury impaneled for his case consisted of eight African Americans, who voted to acquit, and four whites, who voted to convict the congressman. On April 27, 1990, U.S. District Judge Odell Horton declared a mistrial. It took three years before a second trial was scheduled. As in the first trial, prosecutors sought a change of venue. This time instead of seeking an East Tennessee venue, they asked that the trial be moved from Memphis to Jackson, which was still in the state’s western division.

When the Jackson trial began in April 1993, Ford was hospitalized because of chest pains. The jury for this trial was composed of eleven white and one African American. This jury acquitted Harold E. Ford Sr. of all charges. He returned to Washington and resumed his chairmanship of the Ways and Means subcommittee and issues relating to welfare reform. Ford remained in Washington serving the constituents of Tennessee’s Ninth Congressional District for another three years before resigning. He was succeeded by his son, Harold E. Ford Jr., who went on to assume his father’s seat in Congress after the 1996 elections.

Memberships and Awards

Harold Ford Sr. was a member of the National Advisory Council of Saint Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. He served on the board of directors of the Metropolitan Memphis Young Men’s Christian Association. He was a member of Alpha Phi Alpha Fraternity, Inc., and chaired the Black Tennessee Political Convention. A member of Mount Moriah East Baptist Church, he was the recipient of numerous awards, including the Outstanding Young Man of the Year (1976) and the Tennessee Jaycees (1977).

After he retired from Congress, Harold Eugene Ford Sr. divided his time between homes in Miami and the Hamptons outside New York City. He also worked in his own consulting firm.

Ford, Henry - Overview, Personal Life, Career Details, Chronology: Henry Ford, Social and Economic Impact [next] [back] Ford, Harold, Jr.(1970–) - Congressman, Collegiate and Law School Years, Enters Race for House of Representatives

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