Skip Navigation


We are too prone to associate the fine qualities of courage and heroism with the great crises and with military campaigns, forgetting that courage as splendid and heroism as daring may be shown by a boy in his fight against poverty and in his struggle for an education. The life and work of Thomas Lewey Sweeney, the only colored lawyer at Fayetteville, W. Va., illustrate this. He was born near Red Sulphur Springs in Monroe County, W. Va., on September 19, 1870. His parents were Lewey and Annie Sweeney. The father was a shoemaker by trade, but passed away when his son was only eighteen months old. When he was five years of age he lost his mother also. Thus he was completely orphaned at an early age when he was unable to provide for himself. He says, "After my mother died I went to live with some white people who lived on a large farm in Monroe County, West Virginia. I lived with them some eight or ten years. There was a large family of these people, most of whom were grown, where I was living. Some of them were going to school and others were teaching school. I sat around the fireside during the winter nights for a number of years and watched them prepare their lessons. They never undertook to teach me, but would sometimes say to me, "you ought to learn and educate yourself." I made up my mind then to educate myself although I had no one to help me. I went down to Richmond, Va., and there learned my alphabet, and then I attended Harpers Ferry School one year. From there I went to Howard University, Washington, D. C., and remained there for twelve years in school, receiving my A.B. degree in 1896, and LL.B. degree before leaving in 1898. I worked my way all the time in all of these schools." This simple narrative leaves much untold. The struggle for an education meant not only years of application and study, but also years of hard work and close economy. That sort of regime sometimes makes misers of men, but it did not of Mr. Sweeney. After leaving the farm referred to above, his first work was as a water boy on the railroad section. He was then only fourteen, but he was faithful and when ready to start to Richmond, his foreman provided him a pass. When school was out he returned to the section, and while it was a time of depression and the force was out, he was retained and so was able to return to school again in the fall. The third year he went to Storer College and after one term there entered Howard University for both his literary and professional courses. After going to Howard he secured work at northern hotels or on the boat lines with the exception of one year when he was attached to the P. O. Department at Washington.

In 1900 he began the practice at Fayetteville, where he has since resided and has prospered. His practice has grown steadily, and he has accumulated valuable real estate and other property. In politics Mr. Sweeney is a Republican and is a member of the State Republican Executive Committee, and has done considerable campaigning for the party. He is a member of the Baptist church, and among the secret orders and benevolent societies is identified with the Mason and the Red Men.

On Sept. 6, 1906, Mr. Sweeney married Miss Carrie Anderson. Mrs. Sweeney was educated at the West Virginia Collegiate Institute and is an accomplished teacher. They have three children, Thomas L., Jr., Carlos B. and Joyce Virginia Sweeney.Mr. Sweeney is an intelligent observer and student of conditions, and is characteristic of men of his type that they never prescribe short cuts to success or progress. He says "The interest of the race are to be promoted by stimulating the desire for education and economic advancement." The particular book that has been most helpful to him is the Life of Abraham Lincoln. Speaking in a modest way of his work and attainments he says, "For several years after the completion of my course of study at Howard University, Washington, D. C., and after my graduation from the Law Department, I taught school in West Virginia and was designated by the State Department of Schools to hold teachers' Institutes for the training of teachers in various parts of the State, a work much enjoyed by me, and I sometimes think that if I have any calling, it is to the school room as teacher. In 1912 I was elected attorney for the United States Council of the Independent Order of Red Men of America and I am still retained as attorney for this Corporation.

Money getting has never been my chief and highest ambition. I had rather be considered a highly cultured man with a highly cultured mind than to have great riches.

However without a great effort along that line, my residence cost me $5,000.00; I have under construction a three-story brick business building at a cost of $14,000.00; I have other real estate valued at $10,000.00 besides carrying a $5,000.00 life insurance policy."

History of the American Negro Index

History Center

West Virginia Archives and History