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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
There was one final dreg. Pinchback hoped at the very least for the satisfaction of seeing Kellogg rejected by the Senate as he himself had been, since the legislature that elected Kellogg was now repudiated. But senators who had gagged at Pinchback swallowed Kellogg. And Pinchback, sadly giving up for all time his Senate ambitions, confessed in December of 1877 that it taxed “both my credulity and charity to concede either sincerity or consistency to Republican Senators who so earnestly opposed my claim … and supported the new Senator.” Since Kellogg’s reputation was at least as sullied as his own, it was clear to Pinchback that color made the difference. Fourteen years later, in a private letter, he put it plainly: “I have … learned that no colored man ever succeeded in politics who has the hardihood to attack white men, no matter how just his cause may be.”
Now Pinchback might have mourned “Othello’s occupation’s gone.” But off the stage, Othellos live less dramatically, though with greater safety and endurance. Pinchback’s connections and money were enough to make him acceptable to the triumphant “redeeming” Democrats. (That was true of Warmoth, too; in 1877 he sank a hundred thousand dollars into a sugar plantation named Magnolia and became an acceptable “Southron” at last.) The patronage for blacks was not great, but it gave some status, at least. Nicholls appointed Pinchback to the state Board of Education in 1877. In 1879, as a delegate to a Louisiana constitutional convention for a second time, Pinchback submitted an article chartering a state institution of higher education for Negroes. It was named Southern University, and in 1883 Governor McEnery (elected this time without a battle) made him one of its first trustees.
He continued to receive Republican appointments, too—agent of the internal revenue service in 1879, surveyor of customs in 1882, and, according to a biographical sketch of one of his grandchildren, there was even a small appointment under President Taft. And in 1884 he was again a delegate to the Republicans’ national convention.
But politics was no longer at the center of his life. Living well was. His fortune was estimated at around $200,000 at the century’s end, his income a pleasant $10,000 annually. He built himself a stately mansion in New Orleans and entertained there lavishly.
Pinchback always attributed his grand style to the judicious selection of a portfolio. But one end-of-thecentury newspaper account described him as a man deeply involved in lotteries and gambling.
The year 1890 brought one major change. Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback went back to the borderstate region of his upbringing, leaving New Orleans for Washington. There is no clue as to why. Perhaps Louisiana, where disfranchisement and lynching were becoming increasingly common by then, was becoming painful. It is also possible that someone wanted Pinchback out of the state and paid his way. And it may have been pure restlessness. In any event, Pinchback went to Washington for a long, quiet retirement. He did not die until December of 1921.
Pinchback must have taken pleasure in the success of his children. The eldest, Pinckney Napoleon, was educated in England and licensed as a pharmacist. A second is referred to in an obituary of his father only as “Dr. Bismarck Pinchback.” A third son, Walter, graduated from Andover and Howard University Law School. He was a lieutenant in the SpanishAmerican War. Pinchback’s daughter, Nina Elizabeth, became the mother of a son named Jean Toomer. When she died in 1909, after a divorce from her husband, the boy went to live with Grandfather Pinchback. He was to become a well-known poet in the Harlem renaissance of the igao’s. One wonders what the aging black politician of the iSyo’s and the budding young black artist of the 1920’s had to tell each other, or what a young black of the igyo’s might think of both.