Sunday, May 12, 2013

P.B.S. Pinchback, born May 10, 1837

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. 

Eliza Stewart was classified as mulatto, of African, Cherokee, Welsh and German ancestry.  William Pinchback was of European-American descent with Scots-Irish, Welsh and German ancestry.  Their children had a majority of European ancestry. 

William Pinchback was moving his family to Mississippi when Pinckney was born in Georgia during the trip.  Shortly after Pinckney's birth, his father William purchased a plantation in Holmes County, Mississippi and his family settled there.  Pinckney Stewart, as he was then called, as a "natural" (or illegitimate) son of his father, was brought up in relatively affluent surroundings. He and his four siblings were raised as white.  His parents sent Pinckney and an older brother north to Cincinnati, Ohio to attend the Gilmore school. 

Grave of William Pinchback
In 1848, Pinchback's father died. William Pinchback's relatives, including his first wife, Lavinia Rudd and their son, William C. Pinchback, along with other children, disinherited his mulatto common-law wife and children and claimed his property in Mississippi.  Fearful that the Pinchbacks might try to claim her children as slaves, Eliza Stewart fled with her children to Cincinnati in the free state of Ohio. 

Canada Bill Jones
Pinckney at the age of 11 left school and worked as a cabin boy on the canal boats for eight dollars a month to help support his family.  After a few years he graduated to the Mississippi riverboats, where he met riverboat gamblers who taught him the tricks of the trade. Around 1850, Canada Bill Jones and George Devol taught the  young Pinckney to throw the monte. He had been working for Devol and his team as a servant, and was known as "Pinch." Eventually, young Pinch became a steward on the steamboats working  the Mississippi, Missouri and Red Rivers. Pinch was an intelligent and charming boy who was shining shoes in a steamboat barbershop when Devol picked him up.  Devol and Canada Bill tutored Pinch on the intricacies of their trade, and soon while Devol and his partners were fleecing the white folks in the steamship's saloon with monte, faro and poker; the boy was up on deck roping in the black deckhands with a chuck-a-luck game. During that time he was  known as Pinckney B. Stewart, but was often called "Pinch".

George Devol 
George Devol later wrote a book, "Forty Years a Gambler on the Mississippi", with a chapter about  his servant and student:
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.

P.B.S. Pinchback was 24 years old when the Civil War began.

Cincinnati, Ohio
In 1860 at the age of 23, Stewart married 16-year-old Nina Emily Hawthorne of Memphis, Tennessee. They had four children: Pinckney Napoleon in 1862, Bismarck in 1864, Nina in 1866 and Walter Alexander in 1868. Bismarck's name reflected Pinchback's admiration for Bismarck of Germany, whom he considered to be one of the world's greatest men. The marriage lasted for the rest of his life, despite rumors of affairs with other women.

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
Later in 1862 he made his way to New Orleans, which had just been captured by the Union Army. He raised several companies for the Union's all-black 1st Louisiana Native Guards Regiment, which was garrisoned in the city. 

A minority of men were Louisiana Creoles of color, part of the educated class; most were runaway slaves.

1st Louisiana Native Guards Regiment
Commissioned a captain, he was one of the Union Army's few commissioned officers of African-American ancestry. He became Company Commander of Company A, 2nd Louisiana Regiment Native Guard Infantry (later reformed as the 74th US Colored Infantry Regiment). Passed over twice for promotion and tired of the prejudice he encountered from white officers, Stewart resigned his commission in 1863.  He wrote his commanding general: "I find nearly all the officers inimical to me, and I can forsee nothing but dissatisfaction and discontent, which will make my position very disagreeable indeed."   

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."

H.C. Warmouth
On December 9, 1872, before the legislature, Pinchback claimed that Governor H.C. Warmouth had offered him $50,000 to influence the legislature. Warmouth was impeached that day, and Pinchback "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. Warmouth was not convicted, and the charges were eventually dropped.

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 Advertiser
Both 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.

His grandson, Nathan Eugene Pinchback Toomer (Jean Toomer), accompanied his grandfather's body to New Orleans.  

Pinchback Tomb, Metairie Cemetery
Pinchback was interred in a family tomb in Metairie Cemetery.  Metairie Cemetery had previously been reserved for whites only.

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.  

Jean Toomer
As late as 1974, over fifty years after his death, Pinchback was still missing from the roster of governors in Louisiana State history textbooks.

Louisiana State Market in memory of P.B.S. Pinchback


  1. great article...I have a special interest in Pinchback because I inherited a manuscript about him written by my mother, who was a professional Historian. I'm working with some prominent historians to publish my mother's work, which focuses on the ex-governor's post-Reconstruction career...hers is the only existing, scholarly account of Pinchback. I appreciate your summary of Pinchback in part because you don't indulge the rumors and 'legends' that have attached to him. He's been so maligned for many reasons, and my mother's book helps correct the record, entirely by employing the record. I'm posting a piece that summarizes much as you do, and reviews the only 2 books on Pinchback---Haskins and my mother, Elizabeth Stewart (no relation to subject)---Haskins was a writer and educator, mom was an historian, and so we have two very different, but very good books on Pinchback....yours, glenn stewart

  2. I wanted to mention that Pinchback did indeed practice law, and had a successful practice in Washington, D.C...