[December 9th marks the 145th anniversary of P.B.S. Pinchback assuming the Louisiana governorship, making him the first African American governor in U.S. history. So this week I’ve AmericanStudied five figures from the Reconstruction era, leading up to this special post on Pinchback himself!]
On three interesting and meaningful stages in an American life that went far beyond a symbolic but very brief gubernatorial career.
1) Civil War service: Pinchback (1837-1921) was born a free man to a white slaveowner and a former slave African American mother, and raised for the first years of his life on his father’s Mississippi plantation, already a striking story of race, slavery, and identity in antebellum America. Educated for a time at the newly formed Gilmore High School in Cincinnati, he and his family moved to Ohio permanently after his father’s death in 1848; but he would return to the South during the Civil War in an equally striking role. He braved a Confederate blockade to reach Union-occupied New Orleans, helping there to raise one of the first regiments of African American volunteers to fight for the Union Army (and earning a captain’s commission, making him one of the war’s few African American commissioned officers). Well before the full and more formal creation of the U.S. Colored Troops highlighted by cultural works such as the film Glory, Pinchback’s early recruiting efforts illustrate the role that individual African American leaders (such as Pinchback and Martin Delany) played in pushing the federal government and the nation toward the idea and reality of such African American soldiers and service.
2) New Orleans activisms: In the war’s immediate aftermath, Pinchback and his young family (he married Emily Hawthorne in 1860 and their four children were born by 1868) attempted to settle in Alabama, but found the post-war racism and violence there insufferable. They moved back to New Orleans, where Pinchback embarked on the multiple stages of his Reconstruction political career: attending the 1867-68 Louisiana constitutional convention; being elected state senator in 1868; succeeding to the role of lieutenant governor in 1871; and to the governorship in late 1872. While his most overt political roles ended with Reconstruction’s close, he continued to influence New Orleans, Southern, and American society in activist ways: helping found Southern University, the city’s first historically black public college, in 1880 (it moved to Baton Rouge in 1914); and joining the 1890s Comité des Citoyens (Citizens’ Committee) that helped challenge the city’s segregated transportation system and bring Homer Plessy’s case to the Supreme Court. As so often in its history, New Orleans was both unique in and representative of late 19th century American life, and Pinchback was an integral part of that unfolding story.
3) Harlem Renaissance legacy: In all those and many other ways, Pinchback left a lasting legacy on his city, state, region, and nation. But he also had another, particularly interesting cultural legacy, as the maternal grandfather of Harlem Renaissance author Jean Toomer (1894-1967). One of Pinchback’s daughters, Nina, married Louisiana planter Nathan Toomer; Nathan abandoned his wife and infant son in 1895, and they returned to live with Pinchback in his Washington, DC home. Pinchback pressured his daughter to change his grandson’s name from Nathan to Eugene (later shortened to Jean), and influenced the young man in other ways as well, including his attendance at the all-black Garnet Elementary School. Like most of his Harlem Renaissance contemporaries, Jean Toomer had a complex and conflicted relationship to both the American and African American pasts; but he also turned those histories and stories into powerful literary works, most especially his poetic, narrative, and groundbreaking book Cane (1923). Just one more layer to Pinchback’s influential and important American life.
Next series starts Monday,
PS. What do you think? Other Reconstruction figures or stories you’d highlight?
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