What Did Black Politicians Accomplish during the Reconstruction Era?

W.E.B. Du Bois, author of Black Reconstruction in America (1935)

The Reconstruction era of United States history has spawned renewed interest. It has become a critical period to study because it helps us understand the nature of political representation and the nature of democracy in moments of crisis. Coming after the Civil War, Reconstruction was the period that attempted to settle the question of the Confederate states’ re-entry into the union while also dealing with the question of the citizenship of four million Black freedpeople.

At the core of these questions were both the idea of Black voting rights and the potential service of Black politicians. Significant political leadership on both the federal and state levels emanated from the Black community. Some of the more famous of these leaders were Hiram Revels, P.B.S. Pinchback, and Robert Smalls. They offered an enduring legacy in helping legislate into existence policies on education, civil rights, and economic reforms.

How the History Has Been Told

The story of Reconstruction had either been neglected or distorted for several generations after it concluded. Much of the neglect and distortion continues, but it was to the credit of W.E.B. Du Bois and his monumental effort, Black Reconstruction in America (1935), that the record of Black politicians became clear. Against the trend of looking at their political service as disastrous and “rightfully” diminished by what Southerners called Redemption, Du Bois argues forcefully that they helped establish some of the most egalitarian political initiatives in American history. For they were ushered in during a period where democracy was expanded in ways that was as transformative as any other period for it enfranchised those who had been enslaved less than a decade earlier. For Du Bois, it would stand to reason, then, that when given the opportunity to occupy political office that they would do something different, that they would try to create a political environment that was grounded in equality instead of repression.

In challenging this hierarchy, these politicians also managed to inspire a negative tradition of “Lost Cause” historiography, which saw Black political ideas as necessarily antagonistic to a Southern way of life. This framing has created much confusion around what actually happened during the period, even inspiring perhaps the most important blockbuster in the history of American cinema, The Birth of a Nation (1915). The story that Du Bois told, then, was scarcely told, though there were some rare exceptions—a notable one being John R. Lynch’s The Facts of Reconstruction (1913)—that detailed the role that Black politicians played in developing a new vision of democracy in the United States. In more recent years, scholars like Lerone Bennett, Jr., Vincent Harding, Thomas Holt, Eric Foner, and many others have taken Du Bois as a direct inspiration in their own narrations of what truly happened during Reconstruction.

The Emergence of the Black Politician

The story of the emergence of the Black politicians begins in large measure while the Civil War was going on. As the Union army conquered territories in the South that were under rebellion, scores of enslaved Africans achieved freedom by flocking to their lines. This constituted a “political problem” for the United States that eventually led to Abraham Lincoln’s Emancipation Proclamation. Black leadership naturally emerged within this context. For instance, Garrison Frazier, a Black minister, was the leader of the community of freedpeople in Savannah, Georgia. When he and his fellow ministers were approached by the Secretary of War, Edwin Stanton and General William T. Sherman about their “needs” in early 1865, they responded that they were concerned to acquire education, land, and protection. Frazier was never voted into any office but his story, representative of the larger Black community, is important because it helps us see what political questions most concerned Black people at the end of the war. It would be incumbent upon those who did achieve political office to translate these concerns into effective policy.

The opportunity to do so came with Congressional Reconstruction. Under the Reconstruction Act (1867), all citizens under the Fourteenth Amendment (which included freedpeople), would be given the opportunity to decide on convening a constitutional convention and selecting delegates to that meeting. It was here where newly emancipated Blacks began their ascent to political office as many of the delegates that helped craft new constitutions in the states were chosen by their fellow community members. Black politicians were then in a fortuitous position when it came time to run for elected office within these state legislatures as they became well-known and well-liked as a result of their service in the constitutional conventions.

Service in the State Legislatures

Robert Smalls, state legislator and Congressman from South Carolina

Our first glimpse of what these political figures accomplished can be seen in the various state constitutions that they had a hand in developing. In South Carolina, Black politicians argued for civil rights protections as well as educational provisions as responsibilities of the state. After being elected to the state legislature, Robert Smalls was one of many Black officeholders who championed the need for education of the newly emancipated Blacks. For Smalls, and others, education was a necessity to forestall any return to a nominal form of slavery that many saw as possible. He had rose to fame after commandeering a Confederate ship, The Planter, in 1962 and steering it directly to the Union navy. With that act of heroism, Smalls began a long career as a Black political leader and education was an issue never far from his agenda as he helped in the establishment of South Carolina State University, the state’s only public historically Black college.

This was also true of another critical state-level leader, Jonathan C. Gibbs. In Florida, there was no majority Black presence as there had been in South Carolina, which made things more difficult for the Black community. Forced to make strategic alliances wherever possible, leaders like Gibbs parlayed these experiences into achieving important positions. For Gibbs, that position was the Superintendent of Education, where he was able to ensure that Black students received an equitable education in the immediate aftermath of the abolition of slavery, fighting to establish what is now the Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, one of the state’s largest historically Black colleges. A Philadelphia native. who like many free Blacks, came to the South near the end of the war, Gibbs had also previously served as Florida’s secretary of state becoming one of the most important leaders of any hue in the state.

One of the more visible Black leaders was Louisiana’s P.B.S. Pinchback. The son of a white Macon, GA planter, Pinchback would eventually end up serving in Louisiana’s Native Guard during the war. From there, he was able to become a formidable political figure in the contentious environment that marked Reconstruction-era Louisiana. This was a state that had a large Black presence, as well as a group of mixed race individuals that occupied somewhat of a middle or buffer position in the state. Together, these groups represented a challenge to the white supremacist norm that was often met with mob violence. The massacres in New Orleans and Colfax are egregious examples. And where violence did not work, an especially obscene version of the Black Codes held sway, particularly in Opelousas, Louisiana.

Therefore, politicians like Pinchback faced an uphill battle in ensuring that Black rights were protected and the democracy translated into better conditions for all. As the Republicans sought to control the process of Reconstruction, Pinchback was one of the Black politicians that rose to ascendancy, serving in the Louisiana State Senate. There he, much like Smalls and Gibbs, strongly supported educational policies for Blacks. Rising to president pro tempore, he was next in line to serve as lieutenant governor when Oscar Dunn, the sitting lieutenant governor died. When the governor, Henry C. Warmoth was impeached, Pinchback became the governor of the state for a brief period of time, becoming the first Black governor of any U.S. state. He would eventually be elected to the U.S. Senate, though prevented from sitting, and finally played a role in the establishment of Southern University, one of Louisiana’s largest historically black colleges.

These are but three examples of the complex roles that Black politicians played in the era of Reconstruction at the state level. While Smalls, Gibbs, and Pinchback were all involved in educational policy, others on the state level sought to redistribute land and wealth, develop fairer policies around labor contracts, forestall the convict leasing system, create state-level civil rights protections, and ensure voting rights. In each state, however, their work was undermined through mob violence, the duplicity of the Republican party (their erstwhile allies), and a failing economy exacerbated by the monopolistic system of the railroad companies. In the histories prior to the work of Du Bois, Blacks are blamed for these failures, but we know now that the picture is varied and complicated.

Political Work on the Federal Level

Hiram Revels, the first Black Senator, representing Mississippi

A number of Black politicians made their way to service in Congress. According to Du Bois, the main issue on their agenda revolved around securing “themselves civil rights, to aid education, and to settle the question of the political disabilities of their former masters.” They “advocated local improvements, including the distribution of public lands, public buildings, and appropriations for rivers and harbors…” [1] A lot of this work sought to use the power of the federal government to aid in the transformation of the country through redistributive policies. As such, the legacy of the politicians who served in Congress was one of imaginative economic reform. Members of that group include the first Black senator from Mississippi, Hiram Revels, as well as the aforementioned Robert Smalls and John R. Lynch, and finally, important figures such as Blanche K. Bruce, Joseph H. Rainey, and Robert C. DeLarge.

By the mid-1870s, the political context had shifted. The Northern industrialists having gotten a foothold into the economic systems of the South, began to withdraw their support for the Black vote and for these economic reforms. Along with the violence that never abated, Black politicians struggled to bring home many of the promises that their political ideas portended. With the Panic of 1873, things came to a head. By the 1876 election, much of the political vision of Black and progressive/radical politicians was on the wane and Reconstruction came to a close with the Compromise that settled that year’s election.

Conclusion

This brief foray into this little-known history of Black political activity in Reconstruction reveals the complex forces at play as well as the resilience of a people who not only endured slavery but fought their way out of those conditions to develop a political praxis that accomplished much. Though brief, it was intense and transformational. Perhaps its lasting legacy is the public education system and the existence of historically Black colleges and universities to this day. Its unfinished work and perhaps its current relevance is the vantage point that it articulated from the highest political offices of a vision of democracy for those traditionally excluded.

Bibliography

Du Bois, W.E.B. Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880.New York: Free Press, 2000.

Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877. New York: Harper, 1988.

Harding, Vincent. There is a River: The Black Struggle for Freedom in America. Orlando, FL: Harcourt Brace, 1981.

Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press, 1979.

Quarles, Benjamin. The Negro in the Civil War. New York: Russell and Russell, 1953.

References

  1. W.E.B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880 (New York: Free Press, 2000), 628-29.

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