Pinchback, P. B. S. 1837–1921
P. B. S. Pinchback 1837–1921
Governor of Louisiana
Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, known throughout his life as P. B. S. Pinchback, was one of the most interesting black politicians America has ever known. From his rough-and-tumble start as a gambler on the riverboats plying southern waterways to his rapid ascent up Louisiana’s political ladder during the “Black Reconstruction” era that followed the U.S. Civil War, Pinchback’s accomplishments were varied and extraordinary. Throughout his political career he repeatedly was faced with opposition from those who objected to his mixed-race heritage. His political wiles, nonetheless, enabled him to become the first black governor of his state, if only for a short time.
Pinchback was the son of a white plantation owner and a slave of mixed African, Caucasian, and Indian blood. His father, William Pinchback, freed Pinchback’s mother, Eliza Stewart, from slavery just before he moved his family from Virginia to Mississippi. On the way to that new home, Pinckney was born. His early years were spent on a vast plantation in what was an unusual household for that period: the union of a white man and black woman who lived together openly despite the rumblings of their neighbors. It was a loving family.
When he was nine, Pinchback and an older brother were sent off to a Cincinnati high school to continue their education. But two years later, in 1848, the boys had to return home—their father was dying. On the death of William Pinchback, Pinckney and the four other children in the family lost more than their father: the relatives of the white plantation owner, who had long been shocked by his relationship with a non-white woman, swooped in to rob Eliza and her children of their inheritance. Hearing rumors that the relatives would also try to enslave her and her children, Eliza moved the family to Cincinnati.
Twelve-year-old Pinckney became responsible for supporting the family. He signed on as a cabin boy for canal boats at a salary of eight dollars per month. After a few years he graduated to the riverboats, where he met some famous riverboat gamblers of the era. He soon became a personal manservant for the white gamblers, who taught him the tricks of the trade. While they fleeced high-paying customers in riverboat staterooms, Pinchback ran games for the black deckhands and crews of the boats.
In his later years as a politician, stories about Pinchback’s riverboat days were spread by friends and foes alike. While it is hard to separate fact from fiction, it is probably true that
Born Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, May 10, 1837, in Macon, GA; died December 21, 1921, buried in New Orleans; son of Major William Pinchback (a plantation owner) and Eliza Stewart (a slave); married Nina Emily Hawthorne, 1860; six children. Education: Straight University, New Orleans, LA, law degree, c. 1890.
Cabin boy on canal and riverboats, 1848-62; captain of Corps D’Afrique; organizer of Louisiana Republican party; member of Louisiana Constitutional Convention, 1867; elected to state senate, 1868; opened steamship and cotton company, 1869; published weekly newspaper the Louisianian, 1870-81; elected president pro tempore of senate, 1871; named lieutenant governor, 1871; acting governor of Louisiana, 1872-73; elected to U.S. House of Representatives, 1872, (denied seat, 1875); elected to U.S. Senate, 1873, (denied seat, 1876); named customs surveyor of New Orleans, 1882; admitted to bar, 1890.
Pinchback had some close calls in the rough gambling world. He also was rumored to have had many women friends. In fact, after one such relationship soured, Pinchback was stabbed by the woman’s brother. In 1860, at age 23, Pinchback added a measure of stability to his life by marrying 16-year-old Nina Emily Hawthorne. Still, in May of 1862, Pinchback was again attacked on the street, this time by his sister’s husband.
In Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, author James Haskins quoted prison records that describe Pinchback’s appearance at the time: “Age, 24; height, 5 ft. 9 1/2 in[che]s; color of hair, black; color of eyes, black; where born, Georgia; education, educated; occupation, laborer; habits, intemperate.” The so-called wild man served two months of a two-year sentence for the knife fight with his brother-in-law. Out of jail, he immediately enlisted in a white military company, the First Louisiana Volunteer Infantry. However, at that time a move was underway to recruit free blacks into the Union Army to fight against the South in the Civil War. Pinchback was soon allowed to recruit a group of black men, known as the Corps d’Afrique, of which he was named captain. But even in this corps—soon being run by white officers—blacks were treated poorly.
Pinchback rebelled against the military environment and against general conditions in civilian New Orleans. One century before Rosa Parks’s historic bus ride, Pinchback ignored the markings on streetcars cordoned off for black passengers only and rode the cars designated for whites. Following one year of poor treatment in the army, during which he was passed over for promotions, Pinchback, according to Haskins, wrote his commanding general: “I find nearly all the officers inimical to me, and I can foresee nothing but dissatisfaction and discontent, which will make my position very disagreeable indeed.” He therefore resigned and was paid $521 for his services.
Pinchback’s attempt to recruit another company of black cavalry soldiers was rejected by his superiors because of his racial heritage. Dejected and angered, he decided to take his family back north to Cincinnati to visit his mother. Pinchback remained there until the war ended in 1865, then traveled throughout the South, seeking his fortune. Meanwhile, even though the war was over and blacks had been proclaimed free, oppositional southern political forces were still intimidating enough to prevent elections in black districts. Though currently landed in Alabama, Pinchback read newspaper accounts of goings-on in his home state: when the governor of Louisiana convened a constitutional convention on July 30, 1866, hundreds of people entered the convention to participate; a mob stormed the meeting and opened fire. Between 38 and 48 people, mostly blacks, were killed.
Following this incident, Pinchback began speaking out in Alabama, addressing groups of men and women and effectively starting his political career. One such speech, quoted by Haskins, captured Pinchback urging his listeners to become informed and involved. “The colored people by attending these meetings will gain information,” Pinchback said in deference to the coalition of white politicians that decried large gatherings of blacks. “And that is exactly what they do not wish you to have, for they know too well it has only been the ignorance of our people that has kept them in slavery for so long.”
Pinchback continued: “Shut us out from all that is ennobling, all that is calculated to inspire us to worthy actions and I cannot tell what may happen. Should the whites on the other hand deal with us justly and honorably I am confident that they will never cause to regret the change in our conditions and the best feelings will be restored, and peace and harmony will prevail throughout the land.”
In 1867 Pinchback returned to Louisiana and began his political career in earnest. He set up the Fourth Ward Republican Club, which soon became his power base. He attended the state’s constitutional convention in June and delivered a rousing speech in which he criticized all prejudice and denounced bickering among black factions. According to Haskins, Pinchback stressed, “When I recollect the severe chastisement through which our people have passed, I cannot believe they will allow any man to divide them but will dispassionately reason together for the permanent interest and welfare of our whole people, and when the time arrives go a solid unit for the right man.” He also used the occasion to caution his fellow blacks that their struggles were far from over. “Our people,” he said, “seem to think that all is done, the Great Battle has been fought and the victory won. Gentlemen, this is a fallacy. The Great Contest has just begun.”
Pinchback was very active at the constitutional convention, introducing civil rights proposals for the state’s new constitution that were far-reaching and ahead of their time. One article that passed overwhelmingly prohibited discrimination on public transportation, in business, or at resorts that were licensed by the state. The legislation mandated that all such places “shall be opened to the accommodation and patronage of all persons, without distinction or discrimination on account of race or color.” Although the measure passed, the long struggle for racial equality that occurred in the following century made clear that the law was never regularly enforced.
In April of 1868, Louisiana voted on the proposed constitution and to fill its legislative offices. Pinchback ran for office and was expected to win, but he lost the senate seat 899 to 819. In what would become the first of many battles to claim his position in the legislature, Pinchback charged that the election was fraudulent. He presented his case before the legislature and on August 31 was awarded the senate seat. The election also brought into office two other men who would play a big part in Pinchback’s life in the years to come: Governor H. C. Warmouth and Lieutenant Governor Oscar Dunn.
A few days after his election, Pinchback was walking along the streets of New Orleans when he was shot at by S. C. Morgan, a mulatto. Pinchback returned fire and neither man was seriously injured. But Pinchback—and indeed all blacks—were lambasted in the press as being unfit to hold office as a result of the scuffle. Pinchback addressed the legislature in what author Haskins called “the most fiery speech ever heard in the history of the Louisiana legislature.” In it Pinchback said New Orleans would find itself “in ashes” if his political opponents continued to target him. His opponents labeled him an extremist.
During the legislative session, Pinchback successfully proposed a measure that legally recognized the marriages of black men and women. He also proposed a bill that would impose a $100 fine on any person running a public accommodation that refused to give equal treatment to whites and blacks. The bill passed both the House and Senate but was vetoed by Governor Warmouth. In May of 1868, Pinchback attended the Republican National Convention in Chicago to witness the presidential nomination of Ulysses S. Grant. Upon returning to legislative business in January of 1869, he again pushed for civil rights measures.
In a speech advocating fair treatment in all accommodations, Pinchback asked, “What would be the result of a man’s being refused any of these privileges because he was an Irishman, German, Italian, or Jew? Nearly every paper in the land would condemn the act. Yet there are daily occurrences of outrages of this character perpetrated on colored men, and instead of condemnation the act receives applause. It is this that has fostered and perpetuated the prejudice which causes the act and makes the law necessary.” Spurred by his vocalness, an all-encompassing civil rights bill was passed—but the law never enforced.
As his legislative work prospered, Pinchback began to engage in business. He also started a weekly newspaper, the Louisianian, of which he became sole owner in 1870; he published it for 11 years. In 1871, Pinchback continued to maintain his many concerns but aimed his sights at a higher office, that of U.S. senator. At that time in U.S. history, U.S. senators were elected by state legislators. Pinchback lost the race to a white candidate championed by Governor Warmouth, but remained in the state senate. The split between Warmouth and Pinchback grew.
Despite his obvious virtues, Pinchback—as well as most every other Louisiana politician of the time—engaged in wide-scale corruption. Haskins wrote that “the legislative plundering was so widespread in 1871 that it was natural for all to partake in it.... Pinchback was in an excellent position to line his pockets because of the high position he held in the Senate, where he chaired the Committees on Enrollment and Federal Relations and served on the Committees on Appointment and Election Districts, Engrossing Bills, and Public Works.”
Over the next few years, Pinchback became embroiled in the most contentious struggles of his political life. Although he disagreed with Governor Warmouth on many issues, he did not join the political forces of the Governor’s main opponent, Oscar Dunn, the black lieutenant governor. In Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation, author Richard Nelson Current described an August of 1871 encounter between the Dunn and Warmouth factions: “Before eleven O’clock a curious procession moved down Canal Street towards the customhouse. Riding a carriage were a white man and a mulatto—Warmouth and Pinchback—and marching behind were dozens of their black and white followers.” The procession was met by federal troops who opposed the Governor and who trained early machine guns called Gatlings, on the crowd. The incident generated national publicity.
But the dispute was diffused by the end of November, when Dunn suddenly died. Pinchback was elected to serve as president pro tempore of the state senate, meaning that he became Dunn’s successor as lieutenant governor. In this position, Pinchback wielded considerable power, and he became a major player in the 1872 elections, which included a presidential race. As could be predicted, Warmouth and Pinchback were on opposite sides of the presidential race, in which Pinchback supported the Republican candidate, Ulysses S. Grant.
Grant’s supporters felt that Louisiana’s election laws were unfavorable to their candidate, but they could not get Governor Warmouth to sign an election law reform bill. According to Current, Pinchback and Warmouth happened to meet in New York in September of 1872. Both were out campaigning nationally for the presidential ticket. Lieutenant Governor Pinchback decided to race back to Louisiana and sign the election reform bill in Warmouth’s absence. Warmouth, learning of the plan, hopped on a train and raced Pinchback back home. He met Pinchback en route, the two laughed about the foiled Pinchback plan, and the laws stayed intact. Two months later, Pinchback won a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“In the election Warmouth made the most of the laws that enabled him to influence the balloting,” Current assessed in Those Terrible Carpetbaggers, a title that reflects the private gain sought by members of the postwar governments. Warmouth, though, was eventually challenged on his opportunism and public opinion turned against him. He in turn asked Pinchback to join forces with him against growing opposition. As quoted in Those Terrible Carpetbaggers, Pinchback wrote the Governor, “I have slept on the proposition you made last night and have resolved to do my duty to my state, party, and race, and I therefore respectfully decline to accept your proposition. I am truly sorry for you, but I cannot help you.”
On December 9, 1872, before the legislature, Pinchback claimed that Warmouth had offered him $50,000 to influence the legislature. Warmouth was impeached that day, and Pinchback, in Current’s dramatic retelling, “broke into Warmouth’s office, occupied it, and assumed the title and authority of the governor.” Warmouth fought the decision, at one point even threatening to use the state militia to regain office. But President Grant instructed federal troops to recognize the authority of Pinchback, and Pinchback assumed control of the state. In doing so he became the first black governor in U.S. history. His term only lasted 43 days, when a new election was held; nonetheless, history had been made.
Next came an even stranger series of events. Pinchback’s election to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1872, just before he became governor, was still in effect, but different factions claimed different election returns—one declared Pinchback the House seat victor, while another named his opponent, George Sheridan, the victor. Similarly, the day after Pinchback’s term as governor ended, the legislature elected him to serve as a U.S. Senator. Even though he was elected to the Senate, Pinchback decided upon assuming the House seat. For two years bickering and corruption kept him from officially holding congressional office, although he did receive his official salary. Finally, he was denied that slot by a House vote taken March 3, 1875. Though it wasn’t a unanimous decision, the dispute was settled resoundingly, 121 to 29.
Undaunted, Pinchback then turned his full attention to retaining his Senate seat, but turnabout persisted as that seat was contested also. The argument made by his opponents centered on whether the legislature that had elected him to the Senate in the first place was a legitimate government. Evidently the answer to that was no, for on March 8, 1876, Pinchback lost his Senate seat, when the U.S. Senate voted 32-29 that he was not entitled to serve. In a similar fashion, he had drawn salary until the day he was officially refused the seat. For all intents and purposes, Pinchback’s political career was over; he was 39 years old. He went back to Louisiana and was appointed a customs surveyor for the city of New Orleans.
Pinchback became well known in social circles for his gracious hospitality. In 1885, when he was 48 years old, Pinchback attended law school at Straight University, an institution organized to educate people of color. During this time, Pinchback noted with alarm the many new segregation laws that were springing up around the South. In 1890 he was elected chairman of the American Citizens’ Equal Rights Association, the goal of which was to preserve equality among all citizens. He moved his family to Washington, D.C. in 1895 and stayed there for the rest of his life, speaking out against the increasingly restrictive “separate but equal” laws that were being written around the nation. He died on December 21,1921, and was accompanied to New Orleans for burial by his grandson, writer and Harlem Renaissance shining light Jean Toomer.
The African-American Almanac, sixth edition, edited by Kenneth Estell, Gale, 1994, pp. 596-97.
Black Reconstructionists, edited by Emma Lou Thombrough, Prentice Hall, 1972, pp. 143- 45, 176.
Current, Richard Nelson, Those Terrible Carpetbaggers: A Reinterpretation, Oxford University Press, 1988, pp. 251, 254, 255, 276-81.
Dann, Martin E., The Black Press: 1827-1890: The Quest for National Identity, G. P. Putnam’s Sons,1971, pp. 27-8.
Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford Logan and Michael Winston, W. W. Norton & Co., 1982, p. 493.
Haskins, James, Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, Macmillan, 1973.
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