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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
In the state senate Pinchback finally got his revenge on the street-car companies for their wartime “insults.” He introduced a successful bill forbidding racial discrimination on common carriers. He also helped with legislation giving a monopoly of the city’s slaughtering business to one corporation. (Rumor held that the directors paid legislators handsomely for the favor.) And he supported an election bill, early in 1870, giving the state’s governor the power to appoint the “returning boards” that counted the votes in elections in the parishes (Louisiana’s equivalent of counties). This allied him with the then-powerful chief executive and unquestioned Republican boss of the state at that time, Henry Clay Warmoth. He must have looked, as he maneuvered in cloakrooms and offices, the way he later appeared to a national correspondent in Washington—a “bronze Mephistopheles,” reserved in manner but glancing restlessly around with keen, appraising looks and occasionally letting a “sardonic smile” twist his lips. He was elected easily to a second term in the state senate, and then, without having to yield his lawmaker’s seat, he was named school director of New Orleans.
Such appointments fed a politician’s power by giving him jobs and contracts to dispense. Meanwhile Pinchback was also making himself rich. In the fall of 1869 he set up a cottonbrokerage business with a partner named Antoine. It prospered, and as it did, so did Pinchback’s own stylishness and freedom of maneuver. In 1870 he began to publish a weekly paper, the New Orleans Louisianian . This, too, broadened his base. It gave him a pulpit and a chance at state printing contracts. And newspapermen had ways of being in on official secrets early, sometimes to their own profit.
Accusations of impropriety always hovered around Pinchback’s head, as was inevitable in sharply divided Louisiana. He was named a city park commissioner and charged with being part of a syndicate that bought a piece of proposed parkland for $65,000 cash down, then sold it to the city for $260,000—more than three times its official valuation. With others, too, he tried and failed to set up a Mississippi River packet company and milk a fat grant-in-aid from the legislature. There were other accusations of straight bribery—with Pinchback labelled as both giver and taker—to all of which he issued indignant denials. He was never arrested, indicted, or convicted for any offense rising out of his official duties. As a businessman and politician Pinchback was supplely ambidextrous, the quintessential “operator.” He moved along his wellgreased upward track, rising parallel—until the end of 1871—with Warmoth.
The alliance between the two was interesting because, in a fashion, they were cut, albeit from different races, from the same pattern. Warmoth was five years younger than Pinchback and was a struggling young lawyer in Lebanon, Missouri, when the war broke out. He joined up and in 1864 found himself a judge of the Provost Court in New Orleans, helping in the administration of military justice in the occupied city.
Warmoth quickly learned his way through the intricacies of Louisiana’s power arrangements. In 1866 he became state commander of the Union veterans’ organization, campaigned hard for the Republican ticket, and pulled wires so well that the party settled on him as its choice to head the ticket early in 1868, even though it was necessary to lower the constitutional age limit for governor specifically to make the twenty-six-year-old Warmoth eligible.
In office Warmoth got a complaisant legislature to pass laws that gave him the power to appoint the returning boards. He likewise got control of the New Orleans police, the “parish constabulary” (an equivalent of state police), and the state militia. Taken together, these powers made him a virtual czar, but even Warmoth’s power was not absolute. He needed collaborators, especially those with adherents, and he needed at least some among the Negroes. That was what brought him into contact with Pinchback, whom he characterized many years afterward as “admittedly the leader of the colored race in Louisiana at this time.” Whatever the precise terms of the bargain were, Pinchback was in the Warmoth camp in 1869 and 1870. He voted for many of the governor’s financial measures and also for the election-controlling bills that enabled Warmoth to sweep into the executive chair a second time in 1870. Then, in November of 1871, Lieutenant Governor Oscar Dunn, a Negro, died of illness. The state senate met to choose a chairman pro tempore to replace him. Whoever that person would be, he would, in the absence of a lieutenant governor, be legally next in line to succeed Warmoth if anything should befall him. Pinchback ran for the post with Warmoth’s support, and was elected on December 6, 1871. In winning he also became ex officio president of the Board of Metropolitan Police of New Orleans. The favor of Warmoth’s backing was soon returned when Pinchback helped to fight off a move by the increasing number of Warmoth’s enemies in the senate to have the courts oust the governor.