Pinckney Benton Stewart was born May 10, 1837, in Macon, Georgia, the eighth of ten children of Eliza Stewart, a former slave, and Major William Pinchback, a planter and her former master. They lived together as husband and wife, but interracial marriage was forbidden by state laws.
|Grave of William Pinchback|
|Canada Bill Jones|
Great oaks from little acorns grow; and you can never tell the eminent position to which the little bare-footed, ragged boy may climb if he has good luck. There is Governor Pinchback, of Louisiana. He was my boy. I raised him, and trained him. I took him out of a steamboat barber shop. I instructed him in the mysteries of card- playing, and he was an apt pupil. Never shall I forget the night we left New Orleans on the steamer Doubloon. There was a strong team of us, Tom Brown, Holly Chappell, and the boy Pinch. We sent Pinch and staked him to open a game of chuck-a-luck. . . while we opened up monte in the cabin. The run of luck that evening was something grand to behold. I do not think there was a solitary man on the boat that did not drop around in the course of the evening and lose his bundle. When about thirty miles from New Orleans a heavy fog overtook us, and it was our purpose to get off and walk about six miles to Kennersville, where we could take the cars to the city. Pinchback got our valises together, and a start was made. A drizzling rain was falling, and the darkness was so great that one could not see his hand before his face. Each of us grabbed a valise except Pinch, who carried along the faro tools. The walking was so slippery that we were in the mud about every ten steps, and poor Pinch he groaned under the load that he carried.
He did me a good turn when he got up in the world, and true and high honor did not dim the kindly feeling he had for me.
In May of 1862, Stewart was attacked on the street by his sister's husband. 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." Stewart served two months of a two-year sentence for the knife fight with his brother-in-law.
|New Orleans, Louisiana|
A minority of men were Louisiana Creoles of color, part of the educated class; most were runaway slaves.
|1st Louisiana Native Guards Regiment|
He decided to take his family back north to Cincinnati to visit his mother. Stewart remained in Cincinnati 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, southern political forces were still intimidating enough to prevent elections in black districts. 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.
Stewart began speaking out in Alabama, addressing groups of men and women and effectively starting his political career. He urged his listeners to become informed and involved. "The colored people by attending these meetings will gain information. 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. 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 he returned to Louisiana and began his political career in earnest. He took his father's name, Pinchback, and became active in the Republican Party, participating in Reconstruction state conventions. In 1868, he organized the Fourth Ward Republican Club in New Orleans. That same year, he was elected as a State Senator, where he became senate president pro tempore of a Legislature that included 42 representatives of African-American descent (half of the chamber, and seven of 36 seats in the Senate). In 1871 he became acting lieutenant governor upon the death of Oscar Dunn, the first elected African-American lieutenant governor of a U.S. state.
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.
Despite his obvious virtues, Pinchback, as well as most every other Louisiana politician of the time, engaged in wide-scale corruption. James 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."
Pinchback never forgot his friends among the gamblers, and once, while occupying the governor's chair, he was able to have George Devol as a guest at the Governor's mansion and to help him out of a scrape. Pinchback used his position to quiet a New Orleans Police Commissioner whom Devol had beaten out of $800 playing three-card monte.
Pinchback remained active in politics and public service. In the elections of 1874 and 1876, Pinchback was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and then the U.S. Senate respectively; he was the state's first African-American representative to Congress.
"Pinchback's presence in the United States Senate is not open to the smallest objection, except the old Bourbon war-whoops of color. He is about thirty-seven years of age, not darker than an Arab. His features are regular, just perceptibly African, his eyes intensely black and brilliant, with a keen, restless glance. His most repellent point is a sardonic smile which, hovering continuously over his lips, gives him an evil look, undeniably handsome as the man is. It seems as though the scorn which must rage within him, at sight of the dirty ignorant men from the South who affect to look down upon him on account of his color, finds play imperceptibly about his lips..."
~Washington correspondent, New York Commercial AdvertiserBoth election results were contested by Democratic opponents, as the campaigns and elections were surrounded by violence and intimidation. Congress, then dominated by Democrats, finally seated his opponents. This period marked the beginning of a reversal of the political gains which African Americans had achieved since the war's end. The White League, a paramilitary group with chapters across the state beginning in 1874, openly disrupted Republican gatherings and intimidated blacks to repress their vote. A historian described the White League as the "military arm of the Democratic Party."
Pinchback served on the Louisiana State Board of Education and was instrumental in 1880 in establishing Southern University, a historically black college in New Orleans. It relocated to Baton Rouge in 1914. He was a member of Southern University's Board of Trustees. Between 1882 and 1885, Pinchback served as surveyor of customs in New Orleans, his last politically significant position. In 1885, he studied law at Straight University, which later became Dillard University, in New Orleans. He was admitted to the Louisiana bar in 1886, but never practiced.
In 1892 Pinchback was part of the Comité des Citoyens (Citizens' Committee) which set up the New Orleans civil-rights actions of Homer Plessy as a challenge of segregationist laws in public transportation. The case went to the U.S. Supreme Court as Plessy v. Ferguson. It was decided in favor of state laws requiring racial segregation in public transport.
Later Pinchback moved with his family to New York City, where he worked as a Marshal. Finally he moved to Washington, D.C.. He and his family were part of the mixed-race elite in Washington. He took in his daughter and her son after her husband abandoned her. He helped raise his grandson.
Pinchback died in Washington on December 21, 1921 at the age of 84.
|Pinchback Tomb, Metairie Cemetery|
Some of his descendants married into the white community, others married into the black community. His grandson, Jean Toomer (December 26, 1894 – March 30, 1967) became an American poet, novelist and an important figure of the Harlem Renaissance.
|Louisiana State Market in memory of P.B.S. Pinchback|