African-Americans had little opportunity to enter politics until after the Civil War. Republican legislators pushed the Fifteenth Amendment through Congress, giving African-American males the right to vote in 1870. Consequently, African-Americans entered the political arena to represent the interests of their communities.
One of the first African-American politicians was the venerable Frederick Douglass. Born a slave in Maryland, Douglass escaped to freedom in 1838. An ardent abolitionist, Douglass lobbied for an end to slavery on moral grounds. During the war, President Abraham Lincoln considered him an adviser on American race relations.
A cadre of African-American politicians became a reality only following the Civil War. Prior to the conclusion of the war, most African-Americans were slaves. During the period of Reconstruction, when the government attempted to restore order in the defeated South, the freed slaves made political gains. Over 2,000 African-American men held political office from 1865, when the war ended, to 1877, when President Rutherford B. Hayes ended Reconstruction. These men were usually Republicans, the anti-slavery party. African-Americans served in state legislatures, governor’s mansions and Congress.
African-American politicians served in a variety of positions in the 1800s, but only one became governor of state. Pinckney Benton Stewart (P.B.S.) Pinchback held the title of Louisiana Governor for 36 days from December 1872 to January 1873. An attorney, Pinchback became active in Louisiana Republican politics in 1867. He was a member of the state Reconstruction Convention charged with creating a new constitution. From 1868 to 1871, he was a state senator. It was in this capacity that Pinchback began his move to become the state executive. Lieutenant Governor Oscar Dunn, also an African-American, died in 1871. Pinchback, then president of the state senate, assumed the job. The following year, the legislature impeached Governor Henry C. Warmoth, forcing him to step down. As a result, Pinchback became the first African-American governor.
Blanche K. Bruce
U.S. Senator Blanche Kelso Bruce, of Mississippi, was a high-ranking African-American within the federal government. A teacher and cotton farmer, Bruce was a central figure in Republican politics. During this era, state legislatures elected members of the U.S. Senate. In 1874, the Mississippi legislature chose Bruce for the office. He would serve one term, departing in 1881. Bruce was an advocate of the Freedman’s Bank, an institution started by the federal government in 1865 to help former slaves achieve economic independence. In 1888, Bruce, still well-respected in the party, received 11 votes in support of his nomination as the Republican vice presidential candidate.
- Library of Congress: Frederick Douglass Timeline
- Frederick Douglass: Reformer and Statesman; L. Diane Barnes
- U.S. House of Representatives: Reconstruction‘s New Order
- National Governors Association: Louisiana Governor Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback
- The National Archives: The Freedman's Savings and Trust Company
- U.S. Senate: Blanche Kelso Bruce
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