P. B. S. Pinchback
Probably best known today for being the only African American to serve as governor of a southern state during Reconstruction, P. B. S. Pinchback was politician of enormous talent and remarkable longevity.
The son of a white Southern planter and a former slave, Pinckney Benton Stewart “P. B. S.” Pinchback became the first African-American to serve as governor of any American state, during a brief Reconstruction-era tenure as Louisiana’s chief executive. Prior to his political career, he served as one of the Union Army’s few commissioned officers of African descent during the Civil War, and in later years he helped establish Southern University in Baton Rouge. Lauded by his contemporaries for his efforts on behalf of civil rights while at the same time decried for his moral ambiguity, Pinchback was complex political figure who defied easy categorization.
Born in Macon, Georgia, Pinchback spent most of his boyhood in relative isolation on his father’s plantation in Holmes County, Mississippi. Desiring the boy to receive a formal education, his father sent him to school in Cincinnati, Ohio, the abolitionist hub of the Upper Midwest and home to a growing free black and runaway slave community. Pinchback came home to Mississippi after less than a year of school, but the unexpected death of his father put young Pinchback as well as his mother and siblings in jeopardy of reenslavement by white relatives who disinherited the mixed-race family. As a consequence, they fled around 1850 to Cincinnati, where they faced an uncertain future.
As a young man, Pinchback worked aboard vessels plying the Ohio and Mississippi rivers, and he married Nina Hawthorn of Memphis, Tennessee, in 1860. He arrived in New Orleans near the onset of the Civil War and was jailed briefly in 1862 after stabbing another free man of color on a city street; the army provost court that had initially sentenced him to two years’ incarceration described his habits as “intemperate.”
It is unclear why he only served one month of his sentence, but by the time he left jail Pinchback decided to enlist as a private in a Union regiment, presumably as a white man. When Major General Benjamin F. Butler announced that he would raise regiments of “Native Guards” from the ranks of the city’s free black population, however, Pinchback quickly applied to recruit his own company. Despite being the only officer of color in the original Native Guards who was neither a native New Orleanian nor an Afro-Creole, he encountered little difficulty in attracting recruits. The unit entered service by the end of August, with Pinchback as its captain.
Beginning in early 1863, however, the army required black officers to submit to fitness exams, a charade concocted to rid the service of its nonwhite officers who exercised authority over white enlisted men. Rather than submit to the exam, and seeing “nothing but dissatisfaction and discontent” in pursuing a military career, Pinchback tendered his resignation on September 10, 1863, while stationed with his men at Fort Pike outside of New Orleans.
When Pinchback’s political career first took root is unclear, but it certainly blossomed during the early years of the Radical ascendancy in Reconstruction-era New Orleans. Passage of the Reconstruction Acts in the spring of 1867 set the stage for a new state constitutional convention; as the leader of the Fourth Ward Republican Club, Pinchback gained his first meaningful office as a delegate to the convention, where he first revealed in an open forum his preferences for centrist pragmatism over ideological idealism. This tendency, along with his on-again, off-again backing of the young “carpetbagger” Henry Clay Warmoth, made Pinchback an object of suspicion among the city’s Afro-Creole political elite—a group to which the outsider Pinchback could never belong—but he found popularity among the masses of newly enfranchised black voters. His authoring of Article Thirteen of the 1868 state constitution put the citizens of Louisiana on a collision course over the thorny issue of public accommodations. It was also at this time that he entered a partnership to publish the Weekly Louisianian, a black newspaper of which he would ultimately become the sole proprietor and primary editorial voice.
Pinchback was elected to the Louisiana legislature, and his key rival among black politicians in Louisiana became Oscar J. Dunn, a former barber who enjoyed a reputation for moral probity and who, while a native New Orleanian, was neither noticeably mixed-race nor a member of the antebellum Afro-Creole elite. Dunn had emerged in 1868 as Warmoth’s lieutenant governor, but their relationship was less than cordial and became further strained when Dunn aligned himself with the governor’s Republican rivals based in the United States Custom House on Canal Street in New Orleans. Pinchback had risen to president of the state Senate, and from this vantage point began to accumulate power and a reputation as a capable if not always honest legislator. He also grew increasingly loyal to Warmoth, forging a powerful if not enduring political partnership.
Members of the Custom House Ring had been trying to engineer Warmoth’s impeachment so that they might seat Dunn, a reliable puppet of their faction, in his stead. When Dunn succumbed to what was likely a stroke in the late summer of 1871, Warmoth moved quickly during a rancorous series of legislative sessions to have Pinchback elected as his lieutenant governor. Over the summer of 1872, though, Warmoth lost control of the party as the Custom House Ring solidified support in heavily African-American parishes and wards with the help of Caesar C. Antoine and other black Republicans. As a consequence, an Illinoisan by the name of William Pitt Kellogg became the party’s nominee for governor in 1872, with Antoine nominated for lieutenant governor.
Meanwhile, Pinchback and Warmoth parted ways over national party politics, as Warmoth became the leading champion of the Liberal Republican movement in Louisiana, and ultimately threw his support behind the conservative Fusion party in the November election, while Pinchback remained a solid supporter of President Ulysses S. Grant. In fact, he had considered his role in nominating Grant at the National Republican Convention in 1868 as one of his proudest moments. Despite resentment against the Custom House faction, Pinchback could not countenance any such defection from the Republican Party. The Custom House Ring capitalized on the split in the wake of the election, inducing the Senate to impeach Warmoth and elevated Pinchback to the governorship, a post that he occupied for thirty-six days from December 1871 to January 1872.
Louisiana teetered on the brink of civil war during Pinchback’s brief tenure as governor. The gubernatorial election remained in a deeply confused and contested state, with both sides claiming victory. Though deposed, Warmoth continued to champion the Fusionist cause and urged resistance to both Pinchback and the legality of Kellogg’s victory. Moreover, many of the institutions put into place by Warmoth remained loyal to him, including all of the white units of the state’s militia. Luckily for Pinchback, the Metropolitan Police, which had been created by Warmoth but were officered by the capable Algernon Sydney Badger, remained loyal to the Republican Party. The calm handling of affairs by Badger and Pinchback in those tense days prevented—or, more accurately, postponed—the flow of blood in the streets.
Pinchback later claimed victories in disputed elections to both the US Senate and the US House of Representatives but failed to persuade either congressional chamber to seat him. He returned to New Orleans to shore up his political base and pursue new objectives. Even after the collapse of Republican power in 1877, Pinchback, like his one-time ally Warmoth, remained influential in state Republican Party circles. Among other accomplishments, he was instrumental in working with Governor Francis T. Nicholls to ensure passage of language in the state Constitution of 1879 that created Southern University, an institution of higher learning for black students, and went on to serve on its board of trustees .
In later life, Pinchback held several patronage posts at the US Custom House, earned a law degree at Straight University (a precursor to Dillard University) in New Orleans, and became a practicing attorney. He left New Orleans by the 1890s, moving first to New York City and then to Washington, D.C. It was here that his famous grandson, Harlem Renaissance literary light Jean Toomer, was born in 1894. Pinchback died in 1921 and was buried in Metairie Cemetery.