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 Library of Congress

The Election of 1872

Pinchback might have assumed he was making the right (pragmatic) choice to back President Grant’s Republican slate in 1872, but when it came to verifying the returns, Pinchback’s old enemy, Gov. Warmouth (before his impeachment), insisted his preferred candidate, the Democrat John McEnery, had won. Warmouth used the machinery of government to try to make it so, even though when Reconstruction began, according to Du Bois, blacks in Louisiana accounted for 82,907 of the state’s 127,639 registered voters. For months — really, years — Louisiana was caught up in a bloody mess, as we saw most gruesomely in my column on the Colfax Courthouse Massacre. There were even two inaugurations. “Practically,” Du Bois wrote, “so-called Reconstruction in Louisiana was a continuation of the Civil War.”

As a result, even though President Grant certified William Pitt Kellogg as the state’s duly elected governor, backing him up with military force, the U.S. Senate Committee on Privileges and Elections in Washington threw up a roadblock in front of the black man the Kellogg legislature chose to represent them. You guessed it: P.B.S. Pinchback. (Incidentally, he had also been elected to the U.S. House of Representatives but opted for the Senate.) If all had gone according to plan, Pinchback would have been sworn in March 4, 1873, two years before Blanche K. Bruce. Instead, as the opposition mounted, Pinchback soon found himself the poster child for an entire era of greed and corruption that Mark Twain famously coined “The Gilded Age.”

This is not to exonerate Pinchback, who, according to Eric Foner, in Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877, as governor, had profited from a public land deal, speculated on insider information and otherwise fed off the patronage system. The point is that during “the Gilded Age,” senators in Washington suddenly seemed to get religion when it came to accepting this politician as one of their own. (To show just what a wheeler-and-dealer Pinchback was, in a posthumous article on Nov. 21, 1925, the Chicago Defender recalled how he was once asked, “Governor, how much do you think the delegates I told you about yesterday would sell out for?”  To which “Pinchback, high-spirited, proud and unbending soul that he was, answered, ‘Senator, I cannot tell you that. I am used to buying votes, not selling them.’ “)

The Long Senate Debate

By the time Sen.-elect Bruce of Mississippi arrived for his swearing-in at the Capitol on March 5, 1875, Sen.-elect Pinchback of Louisiana had been awaiting his for two years, without satisfaction. Amazingly, the Civil Rights Act of 1875 had become law just four days before, and it affected all Americans by guaranteeing their right to “full and equal enjoyment of” public “accommodations,” “conveyances” and “other places of public amusement,” even “inns” and “theaters,” without regard to “race and color” or “previous condition of servitude.” Had Pinchback been sworn in on time, he might have been the one black senator to vote for it. (It did, however, receive seven black votes in the House — unfortunately not enough to prevent the law from being watered down through the sinking of its call for integrated schools.)

On swearing-in day, the New York Times reporter on the scene commented that “Mr. Bruce … a colored man of fine physique, intelligent features and gentlemanly bearing, next to [former President Andrew] Johnson commanded most attention from the galleries.” If anything, the Times reporter added, he “bears a striking resemblance to King Kalakaua,” the last king of Hawaii. (It was the heyday of color elitism in the U.S., and the paper of record had to find some way to signal to its readership that Bruce was less than white but a few steps up from black.)

As it turned out, what should have only been a ceremonial day in the Senate ended with an extra session to debate, among other things, what to do with the “other” black senator-elect in the wings. To indicate just how high the stakes were, the Chicago Tribune reporter on the scene noted that in addition to his supporters on the floor, “Pinchback himself sa[id] the Senate should not reject him now that a sure-enough nigger is seated [meaning Bruce].”  His case was anything but under the noses of those in attendance, the Tribune made clear; for when Pinchback made his way into “the chamber at a side door, the whole gallery sent up a round of applause.” But this vote wasn’t about making history or garnering applause. When the extra session was over, Pinchback saw his potential Senate colleagues postpone his confirmation in a close 33-30 vote, curiously, with Blanche K. Bruce voting with the majority, perhaps because it seemed like the only available option to stave off an outright rejection on his first day as a Senate freshman.

Believe it or not, the curious case of P.B.S. Pinchback dragged on for another whole year in the Senate — three in all — until Sen. George Edmunds of Vermont, a fellow Republican, pushed through an amendment that inserted the word “no” in the pro-Pinchback resolution. On March 8, 1876, the full Senate approved it, 32 to 29. That five Republicans went along with the Democrats was a clear signal Reconstruction was losing steam, and as I said earlier, politicians always know how to count votes. With President Grant set to leave office after two terms in office, the Rutherford Hayes-Samuel Tilden election eight months later would be among the closest — and most controversial — in the nation’s history. This was until a deal was struck in the House to inaugurate the Republican Hayes in exchange for pulling federal troops out of the South — and with them hope for the recently emancipated slaves until the civil rights movement a century later.

Gov. Pinchback “represented the colored race; he was a representative colored man,” Sen. Alcorn of Mississippi argued just days after Sen. Bruce had joined him in the Mississippi delegation, according to the New York Times on March 17, 1875. But with the wheel quickly turning against such men, what had been almost a blessing at the start of Reconstruction was now a curse. Just before Pinchback went down in defeat, his friend Sen. Olivia Morton of Indiana, “intimat[ed] that if he had not been a colored man he would have been admitted long ago,” according to the New York Times on March 9, 1876. As Neumann writes, it was, Frederick Douglass lamented, “a mean and malignant prejudice of race.”  “While the vote was being taken,” the Atlanta Constitution reported on March 9, 1876, “Mr. Pinchback was on the floor of the Senate and stood near the entrance at one of the cloak rooms. As the roll was called he manifested some nervousness, and, soon after the vote was announced, left the chamber.”

Sen. Bruce’s First and Only Full Term

The pairing of Bruce and Pinchback in the Senate wasn’t to be, and for his many troubles, plus mileage, the Senate on July 6, 1876, voted 27-11 to compensate the former Louisiana governor more than $16,000, according to the Detroit Free Press on Sept. 22, 1876. The following year, Pinchback gave up his Senate fight altogether. In a letter to his governor published in the New York Tribune on Dec. 10, 1877, he wrote, “It taxes both my credulity and charity to concede either sincerity or consistency to Republican senators who so earnestly opposed my claim from 1873 to 1876.” He also said, “I believe that as senator-elect, I not only represented the popular will of the state, but possessed a title substantially legal and valid.”

With Pinchback out of the picture, Blanche K. Bruce completed his full term in the Senate, the first African American to do so. Yet while Bruce had voted for Pinchback in that crucial last vote, he was cautious on most race matters. This was in part, his biographer Graham writes, for “fear of retribution” back home in Mississippi, itself a cauldron of racial violence as whites reasserted their authority in Reconstruction’s aftermath. You wouldn’t have known this, however, from the statements Bruce chose to make in an April 15, 1878 interview with the Washington Post, when he said, “Times are extremely hard in Mississippi, but there is a disposition on the part of everybody, white and colored, to go to work, and the State will yet become one of the most prosperous in the Union.” For this, the Post hailed the Mississippi senator (the last black man to represent the state in such a high office) as the “superior of [Frederick] Douglass,” lauding him for being the “more practical, more modest and … more earnest worker” of the two.

If anything, the chattering classes of the day seemed more interested in covering Sen. Bruce’s travels to Europe (the first black senator to do so) and in his marriage to Josephine Willson, the light-skinned daughter of a prosperous northern doctor, making them the first black couple to be featured in the nation’s society pages, Graham notes. For obvious reasons, and for all his legitimate fears in avoiding the violence in his home state, Bruce’s lifestyle in Washington nevertheless must have made it hard for some in the race (especially those at the bottom of society’s toxic color-caste system) to stomach his advice to those suffering under the heel of white privilege and power: “My earnest advice to the colored people is to remain in the South … We spend too much time pointing them to a Utopia, and we must teach them that they must rise as the white people have risen.” 

To be fair, during his six years in office, Sen. Bruce did stand up on some national issues, including denouncing an anti-Chinese immigration bill. As his term drew to a close, he redeemed himself further by advocating for black depositors who had lost their savings in the collapse of the Freedman’s Saving and Trust Company following the Panic of 1873. By 1879, Bruce was the only black elected official in either house of Congress, and for his service, a delegation of Mississippians presented him with a “gold-mounted cane,” according to the Washington Post on Jan. 27, 1880. His successor in office, James Zachariah George, a former Confederate cavalry officer, would go before the U.S. Supreme Court to defend Mississippi’s revised 1890 constitution stripping black men of the vote. The justices had already struck down the Civil Rights Act of 1875 as unconstitutional, in 1883. The law had lasted only eight years on the books — one more than the combined years of service of and Bruce in the Senate. To see another there would take more than 80 years, about the same as it would for the Senate to pass a civil rights bill as sweeping as the one it had just a decade after the Civil War.      

The Aftermath

In the years that followed, Bruce and Pinchback remained allies and beneficiaries of the federal patronage system. Making his home in the Federal City, Bruce served as the recorder of deeds in Washington (a position previously held by Frederick Douglass) and twice as register of the U.S. Treasury under Presidents Garfield and McKinley. The latter role was an influential one in which he oversaw a 150-person staff and his had very own “John Hancock” on money then in circulation. After his Senate debacle, Pinchback continued operating as a power broker in New Orleans and Washington, D.C., at various times co-owning the Louisianian newspaper, running a brokerage and commission house and serving as surveyor of customs for the port of New Orleans. After attending law school and passing the bar in 1887, Pinchback went on to work for many years as a lawyer in Washington. Of the two black politicians, he lived longer, and so had the distinction of serving as an honorary pallbearer at the late Sen. Bruce’s funeral on March 21, 1898.

Sixteen black men served in Congress during Reconstruction — two in the Senate (Revels and Bruce) and 14 in the House. Du Bois listed each of their names in his study while crediting a number for their “epoch-making service.” Reconstruction was “America’s Unfinished Revolution,” as Eric Foner reminds us. While a few, like Bruce and Pinchback, enjoyed unusual influence, even quasi-“aristocratic” lives as members of the so-called “colored elite,” none left behind any political dynasties. This was because, for the segregation century that followed, there remained an invisible but all the more powerful figure blocking black contenders at the chamber door — you might call him Sen. Jim Crow. These days, we hear a lot about a continuation of the Civil War in the United States, but these men lived it. “There is a sense of security displayed by our people … that is really alarming,” Foner quotes Pinchback as warning. “They seem to think that … the Great Battle has been fought and the victory won.”

Filling Out the Lineup Card

More than 140 black men and women have served in Congress since the Civil War, almost all since the Voting Rights Act of 1965. Yet of those, remarkably, only six had served in the Senate through the last election cycle in 2012. Of those, only three were popularly elected: Edward W. Brooke (R-Mass., 1967-1979); Carol Moseley Braun (D-Ill., 1993-1999), the first black woman ever elected to the Senate; and our current president, Barack Obama (D-Ill., 2005-2008). Revels and Bruce, we learned in this series, were chosen by state legislatures, as were all senators before the passage of the 17th Amendment. In addition, Roland Burris (D-Ill., 2009-2010); Tim Scott (R-S.C., currently in office); and William “Mo” Cowan (D-Mass., currently in office) were appointed as replacements by their respective governors.

Now, with the election of Cory Booker (D-N.J.) on Oct. 16 and his swearing-in 15 days later, we can finally fill out a complete baseball lineup card: the ‘”Black Washington Senators.” But, remember, these illustrious nine have been spread out across American history, so that only now, in 2013, have there been two — just two — serving in office simultaneously. Given the opportunity to break through that ceiling confronting Blanche K. Bruce and P.B.S. Pinchback in 1875, I really do hope Sens. Booker and Scott can find a way to sit on the same side of the aisle at President Obama’s next State of the Union. After all, given the gridlock in Washington these days, would any politician really want to be identified with his party first?

Remember to tune in tomorrow night at 8 p.m. EDT for the third episode of professor Gates’ new PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, “Into the Fire” (1861-1896). To check local listings, and to learn more about the series, visit PBS.org. To order the entire series on DVD, or to purchase the companion book, visit shoppbs.org.

As always, you can find more “Amazing Facts About the Negro” on The Root, and check back each week as we count to 100.

Henry Louis Gates Jr. is the Alphonse Fletcher University Professor and founding director of the Hutchins Center for African and African American Research at Harvard University. He is also the editor-in-chief of The Root. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook.

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