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Tuesday, April 5, 2016

April 5, 2016: Remembering Reconstruction: African American Legislators

[This weekend marks the 150th anniversary of the landmark Civil Rights Act of 1866, one of many such Reconstruction sesquicentennials over the next decade. So this week I’ll AmericanStudy five Reconstruction histories, leading up to a special weekend post on the Civil Rights Act.]
I’m quite sure that every one of the more than 1500 African Americans who held elected office during Reconstruction has an amazing story we should better remember. (And that each of them would fully counteract the awful stereotyping created by “historical” texts like Birth of a Nation.) Here are three distinct but equally important and inspiring such individuals and stories:
1)      Benjamin Turner: Born into slavery in 1825 North Carolina, sold down river to Alabama with his mother when he was only five, and freed by the Emancipation Proclamation, Turner became a self-made businessman and farmer in Selma while the war was still raging. By 1865, he had enough local clout to found one of the areas first freedmen’s schools; two years later he attended the state Republican Convention, launching his political career with an appointment as the county’s tax collector. In 1870 he ran successfully for the U.S. House of Representatives; although he only served one term, it was a productive two years, including authoring private pension bills for Civil War veterans and opposing a cotton tax that he saw as disproportionately affecting African Americans. After his 1872 defeat he mostly returned to farming, although he did attend the 1880 Republican National Convention in Chicago—one more reflection of his political and communal prominence.
2)      Hiram Revels: Born in 1827 to free African Americans in Fayetteville, North Carolina, educated for the ministry in Northern seminaries, an itinerant minister for the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) church throughout the 1850s and the chaplain for one of the first African American regiments in the Civil War, Revels’ story differs from Turner’s in just about every way. Yet he too opened one of the earliest freedmen’s schools (this one in St. Louis, where he had been a pastor before the war) and he too became one of the first African Americans in Congress when he was appointed to the Senate by the Mississippi state legislature in January 1870. Like Turner, Revels served only one term (or in his case, only part of one), as he declined a number of appointments after his Senate term ended in March 1871; yet in that brief time, Revels managed both to fight for the education and rights of freed people and to advocate for universal amnesty for former Confederate soldiers. And in his post-Senate life he continued along both paths, serving as president of Alcorn A&M College (now Alcorn State University) and writing a famous 1875 letter to President Grant denouncing “carpetbaggers”—a duality that illustrates the breadth of perspectives found among these Reconstruction legislators.
3)      P.B.S. Pinchback: Subject of some of the most interesting sections in Allyson Hobbs’ wonderful A Chosen Exile, Pinchback was the mixed-race son of a freed slave and her former master (some of his siblings were born while she was still a slave, but Pinchback was born in 1837, a year after she was freed). Like Revels, he moved north to attend school and stayed there until the outbreak of the war; during the war he moved to New Orleans and worked to raise companies of African American soldiers for the Union army, becoming a captain in one such company. After the war he became active in the Georgia Republican Party, was elected to the State Senate in 1868, and succeeded Oscar Dunn (the first elected African American Lieutenant Governor of any state) as the state’s Lieutenant Governor upon Dunn’s death in 1871. A year later, Governor Henry Clay Warmouth was tried for impeachment; state law required Warmouth to step down while on trial, and for the final six weeks of his term Pinchback served as Georgia’s governor, becoming the first African American governor in the process. The moment reveals the chaotic histories unfolding in every Southern state during Reconstruction—but Pinchback’s readiness and ability to step into the governor’s role are one more reminder of how many impressive and inspiring African American leaders made their mark throughout the period.
Next Reconstruction remembrance tomorrow,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction histories you’d highlight?

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