- Historic Sites
A TALE OF RECONSTRUCTION Of the turbulent career of Pinckney B. S. Pinchback, adventurer, operator, and first black governor of Louisiana. He reminds one powerfully, says the author, of the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.
December 1973 | Volume 25, Issue 1
His name seems pure invention —Pinckney B. S. Pinchback. It sounds so much like pinchbeck , dictionary-defined as “counterfeit or spurious,” that one suspects a joke by political enemies. But the name was genuine, and so was the man, and so was the record. Louisiana voters elected him to important public office at least five times, and for thirty-five days in December of 1872 and January of 1873 he was the governor of Louisiana. And that was a landmark—the highest official position in a state ever achieved by an American black man.
“Black,” that is, only in the language that lumps all those with any African blood under one color label. Actually Pinchback was a mulatto—”not darker than an Arab, less so than the Kanaka,” according to one reporter, with features “just perceptibly African.” He had, said another observer, a “comely figure” and was a “very Othello in appearance, with … good teeth, full jet-black beard and moustache,” dark eyes, small hands and feet, and a style of dress that showed “scrupulous neatness and good taste.” He was, by all testimony, eloquent, shrewd, courageous, and self-possessed and might have been taken, if he had walked into a fashionable restaurant, for a “wealthy créole island planter educated abroad.”
He was all that. In addition he was a politician who almost certainly was bought and bought others from time to time; a businessman and publisher who almost certainly was deep in corrupt deals; a man of wealth who almost certainly earned part of it as a successful horseplayer and gambler.
His career was perhaps possible only in Louisiana. There history is a kaleidoscope. In that meeting place of French and Spanish and Yankee cultures political life is full of ruling clans and corporations, stormy demagogues, and implacable autocrats. Elections often have been followed by court battles, impeachments, and not infrequent bloodshed. For blacks, too, Louisiana patterns are historically distinctive. Even in slavery times New Orleans had a free “colored” community, composed largely of emancipated slaves and their descendants. Many of them were partly white, well-educated, and well-off, and their presence contributed heavily to the somewhat LatinCaribbean flavor of New Orleans life.
Pinchback was not born to this world. He joined it as a carpetbagger. The mold-breaking irregularities of Reconstruction suited his own individualistic style. He was a black and proud of his race—but no idealist struggling for his people. Pinchback was for equality, but his first loyalty was to Pinchback. He had his price, but he was no man’s pawn. Though an intriguer, he had natural ability that would have carried him far on a straight and open path. He probably served his race no worse than many blacks with purer souls and less power. His track was the lonely one of the adventurer. (He reminds one powerfully of the late Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.) Above all, his example proves the folly of peopling the story of Reconstruction with heroes and villains of either race. There were only human beings.
Major William Pinchback was a southern planter whose human property included a mulatto woman named Eliza Stewart, who claimed to be part Indian. He took her to his bed, which was not unusual, and apparently to his heart as well, which was. She bore him no fewer than ten children. He, in turn, freed her after the seventh was born—in 1835 or 1836—and continued the liaison. They lived in Virginia, but soon after Eliza’s manumission Pinchback bought a plantation in Mississippi. On the way there they had reached Macon, Georgia, when labor pains overtook the once-more pregnant concubine. There Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback was born on May 10, 1837. The first two names may have been given to him to honor distinguished southern statesmen who carried them.
When the boy was nine, he was sent, along with Napoleon, a brother seven years older than he, to be educated at Gilmore’s High School in Cincinnati, a privilege that only the luckier children of miscegenation enjoyed. But the luck ran out quickly when the major died in 1848. At the age of twelve Pinckney had to drop out of school and go to work as a cabin boy on a canalboat plying between Cincinnati and Toledo, for eight dollars a month.
The ensuing twelve years were an education in a vibrant, mobile “academy.” Pinchback went from canalboats to steamboats and worked his way up and down the Missouri, Mississippi, and Red rivers in side- and stern-wheelers. They were crowded with the yeasty makers of America, people on the move. With eyes and ears open a youngster could learn fast and rise high. Pinchback did. By the age of twenty-five he was chief steward of the Mississippi steamer Alonzo Childs . It was the highest post in river service open to a black man, carrying with it the responsibility for victualling and supplying the vessel and making it pleasant for travellers. The job required a knack for making deals, satisfying the right people, and handling emergencies.
A man with those skills was bound to be looking for the main chance, and after the summer of 1861 that was no longer to be found on the war-blocked rivers. On May 10, 1862, Pinchback left his steward’s job to settle in New Orleans, where he had at least one connection, a brother-in-law acquired by his marriage to Nina E. Hawthorne in 1860.