Which Black Governor Was Almost a Senator?

His failed Senate bid prevented a situation that Cory Booker's now in.

Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback
Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback Library of Congress

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 53: Why didn’t more than one black person serve in the Senate during the Reconstruction era — a condition that persisted until this year, when Sen. Tim Scott served, first with William “Mo” Cowan, and now with Cory Booker?

We know, from the vantage of history, that Reconstruction in the United States lasted little more than a decade, from the dawn of emancipation at the midpoint of the Civil War until the politically expedient withdrawal of federal troops from the conquered former Confederate States of America in 1877. Yet it is important to remember that no one who lived through those fitful years of promise, experimentation and gathering clouds knew how it would turn out, or when.  And with former slaves and free blacks being a fledgling but still strong voting presence in the deepest parts of the South, Mississippi sent its second black U.S. senator-elect to Washington in 1875. It was four years after the first, Hiram Revels (whom we met last week), left office.  Already waiting there — but still unsworn after two years — was the first black senator Louisiana had sent forth: the state’s former acting governor, P.B.S. Pinchback.

Throughout Reconstruction, white Northern carpetbaggers vied with Southern scalawags for the elephant’s share of Republican Party spoils, but the most ambitious black men in the country were also determined to cash in. The two who almost joined each other in the Senate on March 5, 1875, were no exception. This is their story and that of the glass ceiling (actually a cast-iron dome) they would have smashed by serving together 138 years before Tim Scott (R-S.C.) and William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass.) pulled off the feat this year, followed by Cory Booker (D-N.J.).

Blanche K. Bruce (R-Miss., 1875-1881)

The first was Blanche Kelso Bruce, a 34-year-old former slave born in Virginia to a black enslaved mother and a white plantation owner. Educated alongside the master’s son, Bruce left home (which by then was Missouri) when the Civil War began and his former study-mate joined the Confederate Army. At the midpoint of the war, Bruce narrowly escaped Quantrill’s Raiders, who, in the course of terrorizing Lawrence, Kansas in August 1863, “shot and hung over 150 defenseless people, as well as every black military man … stationed” there, writes Bruce biographer Lawrence Otis Graham, in his 2006 book, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty. Fleeing for safety in Missouri, Bruce eventually opened the state’s first black school in Hannibal. After a year of study at Oberlin College, he worked as a steamship porter in St. Louis before catching wind of the opportunities Reconstruction was about to bring black men with prospects willing to relocate to black-majority states in the Deep South.

Bruce soon established his base of power in Bolivar County, Miss., Graham writes. At one time he served in three roles simultaneously: as tax assessor, sheriff and county superintendent of education. They were positions that earned him white men’s trust and, in the process, generated handsome fees in support of a lifestyle that included purchasing a white man’s sprawling cotton plantation. Bruce’s early sponsor in the Magnolia state was a former Confederate-brigadier-turned-Republican, James Alcorn, who would go on to become governor and U.S. senator.  Despite the fact that Alcorn dangled promises of higher office, in the election of 1874 Bruce backed Alcorn’s rival for governor, Adelbert Ames, a Northern carpetbagger, who had offered Bruce something more specific: a ticket to the U.S. Senate. (No wonder Alcorn, then in the Senate himself, refused to escort Bruce to his swearing-in). White Republicans like Alcorn and Ames knew how to count votes, and in black-majority states like Mississippi, it was vital to cut deals with powerbrokers like Bruce who could deliver them.

P.B.S. Pinchback (R-La.)

The other black man walking up the Capitol steps at the start of the 43rd Congress was Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, a member of New Orleans’ black social elite. Like Bruce, Pinchback was the son of a white plantation owner and black slave mother, though apparently his father had emancipated his mother before she gave birth to him in Georgia in 1837. (Let’s just say Pinchback wasn’t their first.) Pinchback moved to Cincinnati with his brother, Napoleon, in 1847. By the time he was 12, he was supporting his family as a cabin boy after his father had died and the white side of the family left the black side penniless and in fear of being re-enslaved.

As a ship steward on the Mississippi, Pinchback learned the gambling arts from watching the more seasoned players onboard. With the hand he’d been dealt, he could’ve fooled most into thinking he was as white as any king in a deck of cards. Really, it wasn’t until the outbreak of the Civil War that Pinchback embraced being “a race man,” when, after a stint with the all-white First Louisiana Volunteers, he recruited black soldiers for the Corps d’Afrique and joined the Second Louisiana Native Guard (later, the 74th U.S. Colored Infantry). Once there, he eventually rose to captain before resigning over discriminatory promotional practices and unequal pay. After lobbying for black schools in Alabama, Pinchback returned to Louisiana in time for the state’s 1868 constitutional convention (a pre-condition for rejoining the Union). As a delegate, he “worked to create a state-supported public school system and wrote the provision guaranteeing racial equality in public transportation and licensed businesses,” as Carolyn Neumann writes in the Encyclopedia of African American History, 1619-1895.

Pinchback was serving as president pro tem of the Louisiana senate when, in 1871, the state’s first black lieutenant governor, Oliver Dunn, died. This left Pinchback to take his place. So far, timing seemed to be Pinchback’s strong suit, and it was again a year later when his nemesis, Louisiana’s white governor, Henry C. Warmouth, was impeached after a bitter election (more on that in a bit). In the fallout, Pinchback stepped in as acting governor from Dec. 9, 1872, to Jan. 13, 1873. It was just a blink of an eye, but as W.E.B. Du Bois noted in his towering 1935 study, Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, Pinchback was the only black governor of any state during Reconstruction and remained the only one until Douglas Wilder’s election in Virginia in 1989. 

“To all intents and purposes,” Du Bois wrote, Pinchback “was an educated, well-to-do, congenial white man, with but a few drops of Negro blood.” (If anything, he looked more like the steel magnate Andrew Carnegie, a native of Scotland, than his famous black contemporary Frederick Douglass.) To Du Bois, it counted for a lot that Pinchback “did not stoop to deny” he had a black mother, “as so many of his fellow whites did.”

Pinchback’s grandson, Jean Toomer, one of the Harlem Renaissance’s most brilliant writers (you might know him as the author of the 1923 novel Cane), had a different take on his grandfather’s decision not to pass for white. “Did he believe he had some Negro blood? Did he not? I do not know,” Toomer (born Nathan Pinchback Toomer) wrote in his essay, “The Cane Years” (contained in the book The Wayward and the Seeking, edited by Darwin Turner). “What I do know is this — his belief or disbelief would have had no necessary relation to the facts.”  Pinchback “claimed he had Negro blood, linked himself with the cause of the Negro and rose to power.”

That is, until he got to the Senate.