During his relatively short life, Robert Carlos DeLarge was very active, politically and otherwise, in his home state of South Carolina. These involvements ultimately led to his election as a U.S. congressman during the Reconstruction period, but personal and political challenges ended his career after he served only one three-year term in office.
Robert Carlos DeLarge was born on March 15, 1842 in Aiken, South Carolina. His father was a free black tailor who was also a slaveholder, and his mother was of Haitian descent. Sources indicate that DeLarge was identified as being a mulatto, but the term may have been used to indicate any person of mixed ancestry, regardless of the racial categories involved.
DeLarge went to the neighboring state of North Carolina to receive his primary education, then returned to South Carolina, where he attended and graduated from Wood High School in Charleston. During this period he also became a member of the Brown Fellowship Society, a fraternal and charitable organization that restricted its membership to mulattos.
After the firing on Fort Sumter in Charleston's harbor began the Civil War in 1861, DeLarge was employed (under duress) by the Confederate navy to assist in building fortifications for the city. Reports indicate that De-Large also was a barber, an agricultural laborer, and, like his father, a tailor, all to support himself during the war years. When the Civil War ended in 1865, De-Large secured employment as an agent with the Freedmen's Bureau after it was established in South Carolina during the Reconstruction period.
DeLarge became one of more than a hundred free blacks in Charleston who signed a petition asking for voting rights, which was submitted to the 1865 state constitutional convention. He also attended the convention and acknowledged the concession that "ignorant" persons of both races could still be prevented from participating in elections.
Becomes Involved in State Politics
During the same year DeLarge participated in the state black convention, which was known as the "Colored People's Convention", and chaired its credentials committee. He submitted a resolution urging that South Carolina establish public schools for all its citizens, and he made speeches in support of it that were well received by those in attendance. Although his resolution was adopted by the convention, it did not result in any immediate action at the state level.
In 1867 DeLarge chaired the platform committee at the Union Republican state political convention, where he continued to be an advocate for public schools. Other issues he supported and spoke in favor of were voting rights, tax reform, reorganization of the state court system, welfare assistance, modification of immigration laws, fair and equitable awarding of contracts for railroad and canal building projects, popular elections for all political offices, the end of land monopolies, and the abolition of capital punishment.
DeLarge held a number of other positions during the Reconstruction period, including delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1868, where he chaired three standing committees and frequently gave speeches and participated in debates. While many of his ideas, petitions, motions, and resolutions were unsuccessful, the convention did pass his resolution which asked the U.S. Congress for a $1 million grant to purchase land which would then be sold to poor persons displaced from plantations and other large land tracts.
As a member of the state house of representatives, DeLarge chaired the ways and means committee during the 1868 and 1869 legislative sessions, sponsored railroad legislation, successfully argued against a proposal limiting debate on legislative issues, and served as head of the state land commission. He also served as a board member of the Sinking Fund Commission, on the board of regents for the state lunatic asylum, and as a magistrate in Charleston.
DeLarge attended the South Carolina labor convention in 1869. By this time he was well known and influential in state political circles. Apparently, DeLarge used his influence, contacts, and other resources for his own benefit as well, for the 1870 U.S. Census indicated that DeLarge owned $6,650 in real estate holdings, a considerable amount at that time. In addition, his position as land commissioner came as the result of a political arrangement; the former commissioner, C. P. Leslie, resigned and was replaced by a Negro selected by the legislature. DeLarge was the chosen person, and he benefited from the political power of Negro voting majorities in his state as well as the concessions imposed upon the South after the Civil War.
Serves as U.S. Congressman
As part of efforts by black leaders that year to gain additional political power and influence, DeLarge was nominated as a Republican candidate to represent South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. He won in a closely contested election and assumed office in 1871 as one of three black congressmen from his state. One of his colleagues, Joseph H. Rainey, had the distinction of being the first black member of the House of Representatives when he was sworn in on December 12, 1870, while Robert Brown Elliot was seated at the same time as DeLarge.
Personal and political problems at home hindered DeLarge during his single term as a member of the 42nd Congress from March 4, 1871 to January 24, 1873. Charges of election fraud were brought against DeLarge by Christopher C. Bowen, his political rival and former two-term congressman for the South Carolina 2nd Congressional district, which included the city of Charleston. Although there was a Negro majority of registered voters in the district and the Board of Canvassers had declared DeLarge the winner, Bowen appealed to his former colleagues in Congress to further investigate the matter.
In a speech from the floor of the House of Representatives made on April 6, 1871, DeLarge criticized corruption in both political parties, condemned Negroes for trusting white carpetbaggers from the North and elsewhere, urged that former Confederates be allowed to return to politics, and spoke in favor of the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution. One observer, Samuel Delany Smith, described these remarks as "one of the sanest and most sensible speeches ever delivered by a Negro Congressman". This was high praise, coming from a person who in general was very critical of African American politicians, and reflected the delicate balancing act DeLarge and other politicians sought to achieve in order to maintain the favor and support of various factions in their home districts.
By the time of the second session, which began on December 4, 1871, DeLarge had to devote most of his time and energy to proving that he had the right to stay in Congress. Bowen continued to put pressure on DeLarge regarding his past political and business dealings from his new positions in the South Carolina legislature and as sheriff of Charleston.
- Born in Aiken, South Carolina on March 15
- Works as forced laborer for Confederacy when Civil War begins
- Works for Freedmen's Bureau after Civil War; participates in state conventions
- Chairs platform committee at state Union Republican convention
- Becomes member of state legislature; chairs committees and land commission
- Attends South Carolina labor convention
- Runs for Congress; is declared winner of contested election
- Begins service as representative of South Carolina in Congress on March 4
- Ends congressional service when seat is declared vacant on January 24
- Dies in Charleston, South Carolina on February 14
As a result, DeLarge was implicated on charges of fraud and mismanagement in connection with his period as head of the state land commission. Earlier in 1871 DeLarge had reported that nearly two thousand small tracts of land had been sold or would be occupied by new homeowners, with a period of eight years to pay for their property. This was not the case, and the controversy became a major factor in his political demise.
Leaves Congress after Controversy and Illness
DeLarge also experienced health problems, which may have been intensified by his political difficulties, and was reported as absent and sick when the House of Representatives reconvened on January 24, 1873. After the report of its Committee on Elections and a brief debate, the conclusion was reached that neither DeLarge nor Bowen had been properly elected in 1870 because of election fraud and other irregularities.
The brief period of service by DeLarge in the national government ended that day, when his seat in Congress was declared vacant. He was replaced by another African American, Alonzo J. Ransier, on March 4, 1873. Black officeholders would continue to participate in politics on the national stage with varying degrees of success throughout the Reconstruction period. South Carolina had the largest number of blacks to become members of Congress, as Richard H. Cain and Civil War hero Robert Smalls were also elected in succeeding years. DeLarge returned to his home state, where he lived for a time in Columbia, the state capital. Governor Robert Scott then appointed DeLarge to his last political position, as a magistrate in Charleston.
DeLarge's health continued to fail, and he died of consumption at the age of thirty-one on February 14, 1874 in Charleston. Reports indicate that he was survived by his wife and Victoria, a daughter. His funeral took place on February 16 at his home, 106 Calhoun Street, with burial in the Brown Fellowship Graveyard. The offices of other city magistrates closed that day in tribute to a young politician who had experienced such a spectacular rise to prominence, as well as subsequent downfall, in the brief window of political opportunity and advantage for African Americans during the Reconstruction period.
Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Middleton, Stephen, ed. Black Congressmen during Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 2002.
Smith, Samuel Delany. The Negro in Congress: 1870–1901. Chapel Hill, N.C.: University of North Carolina Press, 1940.
Tobin, Sidney. "Robert Carlos Delarge." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton, 1982.
"A Timeline of Reconstruction: 1865–1877." http://chmn.gmu.edu/courses/122/recon/chron.html (Accessed 11 November 2005).
Fletcher F. Moon