Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback (1837-1921) was the first African American to become governor of a state.
Although he was not elected by popular vote, P. B. S. Pinchback advanced to the governor's office in Louisiana when political turmoil reached a crisis point. For much of his life Pinchback found himself in unique circumstances because he was of mixed heritage. On one hand, he was able to achieve some of the education, business opportunities, and material comforts normally available only to whites of the day. However, he was also the victim of discrimination as well. When asked once of which heritage he drew upon as a source of pride, Pinchback replied, "I don't think the question is a legitimate one, as I have no control over the matter. A man's pride I regard as born of his associations, and mine is, perhaps, no exception to the rule."
Pinchback was born in May of 1837 in Macon, Georgia, to a slave and her former master who were by then living together as husband and wife. At the time the family was on its way to begin a new life in Mississippi, where the senior Pinchback had purchased a new, much larger plantation. As a youngster, Pinchback lived in relatively affluent surroundings, and his parents even sent him north to Cincinnati to attend high school. In 1848 his father died, and to add to the grief of his wife and five children, the paternal relatives were vengeful. They disinherited Pinchback's mother and her children. To evade the possibility that the northern Pinchbacks would legally appropriate the children as slave property, Pinchback's mother fled with all five to Cincinnati. P. B. S. Pinchback worked for many years on the boats that plied the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. Some were notorious dens of gambling, and it was on such a vessel that Pinchback encountered a posse of white gamblers who took him on as their personal assistant. He soon became an experienced swindler himself in three-card monte and chuck-a-luck, but to avoid great repercussions, his victims were only his fellow African American coworkers on the boat.
In 1860, when Pinchback was 23, he married Nina Hawthorne, a 16-year-old from Memphis. When the Civil War broke out the following year, Pinchback hoped to fight on the side of the Union troops against the South. The main issue in the conflict between North and South was slavery, and Pinchback's heritage gave him an insight into the status of both blacks and whites in the country. In 1862 he furtively made his way into New Orleans, which was then under occupation by Northern troops. There he raised several companies of the Corps d'Afrique, part of the Louisiana National Guard, and was the military body's only officer of African American descent.
In 1863, passed over twice for promotion and tired of the prejudice he encountered at every turn, Pinchback resigned from the Guard. When the war ended and the slaves were emancipated, he and his wife moved to Alabama, eager to test out their new freedom as full citizens. However, racial tensions in their new surroundings were reaching shocking levels of viciousness. Occupying Union forces shared equally prejudiced views as those of their former Confederate enemies, and would sometimes don the Confederate uniform at night and terrorize the newly freed African Americans. The movements of African Americans were also restricted by the so-called "black codes" across the South, and it became obvious that white Southern politicians were going to do everything possible to prevent them from gaining any political power. Pinchback's political career was born out of this hostile climate. He began speaking out at public meetings and soon became a well-known orator who urged the former slaves to organize politically.
Pinchback eventually returned to New Orleans with his family. Now a committed Republican—the party of Abraham Lincoln originally established to oppose slavery—he was elected a delegate to the Republican State Convention and even spoke before the assembly. His orations helped win him election to the party's Central Executive Committee. During the Constitutional Convention of 1867-68, Pinchback accepted the candidacy for a state senator on the Republican ticket. He campaigned vigorously for both himself as well as his close political ally, Henry Clay Warmoth, another radical Republican and Pinchback's mentor. When Pinchback narrowly lost his bid for the state senate seat, he charged voting fraud. The newly convened legislature agreed and allowed him to take his oath of office.
Pinchback joined a Louisiana senate that held 42 representatives of African American descent—half of the chamber—and 7 of 36 seats in the senate, and his battles against the state's racist Democrats brought him enemies. Walking down the street in New Orleans in September of 1868, an attempt was made on his life, but Pinchback fired back in time. The more conservative Democrat newspapers vilified him as unfit to hold public office. As James Haskins noted in Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, "a turning point came for Pinchback at this time; he would continue to work for his people and for himself, but he would no longer trust any whites, and he would take anything he could get from them." Pinchback was not the only one. By 1871 nearly the entire state legislature had degenerated into political corruption; abuse of power and misuse of public funds became synonymous with the Reconstruction era.
In 1871, Warmoth's lieutenant governor, an African American physician named Oscar Dunn, died suddenly of pneumonia. In a bid to thwart Democratic control of the state, Pinchback's name was put forth by the Warmoth faction as Dunn's replacement, and the senate elected him by a narrow margin in December of that year. The lieutenant governorship also brought with it the post of president pro tempore of the state senate. At the time of Pinchback's ascension to Louisiana's second-highest political office, the political climate in the state was fractious and violent. A second legislature had convened, called the Customshouse senate, and both political bodies were vying for legal control of the state, asserting that they represented the electorate. Mostly Democrats, this group had long tried to impeach Warmoth, but had backed off when Pinchback replaced Dunn as lieutenant governor.
Pinchback continued in his role as lieutenant governor for the rest of 1872, but by the fall of that year many Republicans in the state had turned on Warmoth and wished to unseat him. Election results once again came into dispute, and Warmoth enacted a special extended legislative session to settle the problem. Through complicated political maneuverings—and with the help of Pinchback—a House majority ejected Warmoth from his governor's post on November 21; Pinchback took the oath of office a short time later. The state's Democrats were naturally enraged to have a man of African American descent in the governor's chair, but the state's Supreme Court upheld the legality of Pinchback's ascension.
Formal impeachment proceedings against Warmoth were underway, while Pinchback went about fulfilling his duties as acting governor. Pinchback became the recipient of vicious hate mail from across the country as well as more local threats on his own life. A hundred years later, Pinchback was still the only African American to have achieved such a position of political power, although he had not been elected by popular vote. When final tallies came in and were accepted for the November, 1872 election, Republican William Kellogg was declared governor and was sworn in on January 13, 1873, ending Pinchback's brief but historical executive stint.
In that same election Pinchback had run for a U.S. Senate seat, and in January of 1873 he became a congressman. It was a public office he had long coveted, and with it he achieved another pioneering accomplishment as the state's first African American representative to Washington. His victory, however, was short-lived, as opposing factions in the state unseated him by charging election fraud and naming a white candidate instead. It was the beginning of a reversal of the political gains African Americans had achieved since the war's end.
In 1885, nearing 50 years old, Pinchback took up the study of law at Straight University and was a member of its first graduating class. In the early 1890s Pinchback and his family moved to New York City, where he served as a U.S. marshal, but later they settled in Washington, D.C. Sadly, the achievements he had worked toward—mainly the political enfranchisement of African Americans—were by then legally and illegally reversed. With the reassertion of state legislative control by Southern Democrats and the 1896 U.S. Supreme Court ruling Plessy vs. Ferguson permitting "separate but equal" public facilities, white power was again firmly entrenched in the South. The number of registered black voters in Louisiana was one indication: it fell from 130, 000 in 1896 to 1, 300 in just eight years.
Pinchback died in December of 1921 and was buried in the Metairie Ridge cemetery of New Orleans. In an eightieth birthday party a few years earlier, the poet Bruce Grit had celebrated Pinchback's Reconstruction era achievements, when he and other African Americans obtained a fair measure of political power. "The equality we seek is not to come to us by gift, but by struggle, not physical but intellectual, " declared Grit. "In this struggle we should be as wise as serpents, and harmless as doves. The civic and political experiences of Governor Pinchback should serve as a guide to our young men in the future and help them to break down the barriers which were set up by designing white men of his own political faith. … He is one among the last of the old guard and he has fought a good fight."
Sobel, Robert, and John Raimo, editors, Biographical Directory of the Governors of the United States, 1789-1978, Meckler Books, 1978, p. 572.
Haskins, James, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, Macmillan, 1973.