Since there are so many facets of the history that people of African descent have made in this country, I’ve decided to continue my “Black History 365″ series from my poetry blog here on my AfrocentriqueAZ blog. I’ll be posting a new “First Black” every Wednesday. This week is Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback
Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (born Pinckney Benton Stewart; May 10, 1837 – December 21, 1921) was the first person of African-American descent to become governor of a U.S. state. He was born free in Georgia. A Republican, he served as the 24th Governor of Louisiana for 35 days, from December 9, 1872, to January 13, 1873.
Nicholas Lemann, in Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War, described Pinchback as “an outsized figure: newspaper publisher, gambler, orator, speculator, dandy, mountebank – served for a few months as the state’s Governor and claimed seats in both houses of Congress following disputed elections but could not persuade the members of either to seat him.”
Following passage of the amendment granting full citizenship and the vote to African Americans, in New Orleans Stewart took his father’s surname of Pinchback. He became active in the Republican Party, participating in Reconstruction state conventions.
In 1868, Pinchback organized the Fourth Ward Republican Club in New Orleans. That same year, he was elected as a State Senator. He became senate president pro tempore of a Legislature that included 42 representatives of African-American descent (half of the House, and seven of 36 seats in the Senate). (At the time, the population of African Americans and whites in the state was nearly equal.) In 1871 he succeeded as acting lieutenant governor upon the death of Oscar Dunn, the first elected African-American lieutenant governor of a U.S. state.
In 1872, the legislature filed impeachment charges against the incumbent Republican governor, Henry Clay Warmoth. State law required that Warmoth step aside until his case was tried. Pinchback took the oath as acting governor on December 9, 1872, and served for 35 days until the end of Warmoth’s term. Warmoth was not convicted, and the charges were eventually dropped.
Also in 1872, at a national convention of African-American politicians, Pinchback had a public disagreement with Jeremiah Haralson of Alabama. James T. Rapier (also of Alabama) submitted a motion that the convention condemn all Republicans who had opposed President Ulysses S. Grant in that year’s election. Haralson supported the motion, but Pinchback opposed it because Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts would have been condemned as opposing Grant. Pinchback admired him as a lifelong anti-slavery fighter.
After his brief governorship, Pinchback remained active in politics and public service in Louisiana. In the elections of 1874, he was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives; he was the state’s first African-American representative to Congress. In 1876 the Louisiana legislature elected Pinchback to the U.S. Senate from Louisiana.
Both election results were bitterly contested by Democratic opponents, and the campaigns and elections had been surrounded by violence and intimidation, particularly by the paramilitary White League, whose armed members rode to turn out Republicans and suppress black voting. Congress, then dominated by Democrats, finally seated Pinchback’s Democratic opponents. The mid to late 1870s marked an acceleration of the reversal of the political gains which African Americans in Louisiana had achieved since the war’s end. Historian George C. Rable described the White League as the “military arm of the Democratic Party.”
Pinchback was appointed to the Louisiana State Board of Education (the Reconstruction legislature had established public education in the state for the first time). He was instrumental in 1880 in establishing Southern University, a historically black college in New Orleans. It relocated to Baton Rouge in 1914. He was a member of Southern University’s Board of Trustees (later redesignated the Board of Supervisors).
Between 1882 and 1885, the Republican administration appointed Pinchback as surveyor of customs in New Orleans, his last politically significant position.
Looking at the picture above, I would not have thought that the person pictured was Black. Of course, the “one drop rule” still applied back then. Plus, the black and white photo does not show the tone of his pigment. He was known to be of African decent though, so history will record that he gained this distinction on our (Black people’s) behalf.