- 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 Clay ton 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.
New Orleans, then occupied by the United States Army, was a mecca for the ambitious and unscrupulous. Vast amounts of money were at stake in the trade in captured “rebel” cotton, which required official permission. In addition the still-growing port city badly needed new levees, streetlights and railways, wharves, sewers, buildings, courthouses, asylums, and hospitals. The time was overripe for bargains and favors, golden hopes and fevers of expectation that caught up the old planting, shipping, and banking community, as well as the numerous newcomers who had followed the Yankee armies. There was a general feeling among the latter that New Orleans could become a major metropolis if northern hustle replaced the old lethargic ways—which, in translation, meant that a new crop of businessmen, lawyers, and politicians should crowd out the old. That was the revolution which was in the air in New Orleans in 1862, and it was to mature and run its course throughout Reconstruction, under changing regimes and labels.
Pinchback’s debut as a permanent Louisianian was inauspicious. Within a few days of his arrival he fell into a quarrel with his brother-in-law. Weapons were drawn; Pinchback wounded the other man, and was sent to the workhouse. He explained the affair later as a “personal rencontre.” The sentence was supposed to run for two years, but Pinchback was out in fewer than ninety days, on his petititon to enlist in the Union army. He must have had good contacts, for in a short time he raised a colored company, mustered in as Company A of the and Regiment, Louisiana Native Guards, with Pinchback as captain. The title was expressive of Union hopes that New Orleans’ nonwhite population would provide a kind of “African” fighting force like France’s Spahis. But Captain Pinchback rapidly proved that American-born blacks were not docile colonials. He spent a good deal of time protesting to Union authorities that they did not protect his troopers against such insults as segregation in public places. After about a year he resigned in disgust. Then he raised a cavalry unit and tried again, but once more quit after quarrelling with the authorities over racial policies. The war’s end found him in Washington, to discuss the raising of a black regiment from Ohio and Indiana—a project that peace made unnecessary.
Since Pinchback might have passed for a white man of Latin descent, these battles were episodes he might have avoided. Why he sought them is not easy to answer. Partly it was a matter of pride, the pride of a tawny lion recalling childhood hurts and insecurities that might not have befallen a white son of Major Pinchback. But Pinckney Pinchback must also have been aware that there was talk of enfranchising the Negro and that a black leader with a following would have a potentially bright future. In 1866 and 1867 he toured Alabama, speaking to “colored assemblies.”
One speech survives, neither moderate nor inflammatory and clearly shaped by nineteenth-century elocution lessons. He urged his black listeners to recognize the importance of wealth, “the great lever that moves the earth,” and to see that “virtue must be protected and encouraged.” He had no wish, he went on, to stir up hatred, but he warned that white “mad caps” must not “attempt to revive the scenes of the past” by restoring slavery. If such a step were taken, he said, “I cannot tell what may happen.” But if the whites treated the ex-slaves “justly and honorably, I am confident they will never have cause to regret the change in our condition.” As for the vote, Pinchback noted that some states were likely to give it to “the more intelligent of our people,” and “the party that first confers that right… will be the party entitled to our votes.”
Nothing in the scrawled manuscript surviving in Pinchback’s papers suggests the orator’s manner or whether he had those gifts of gesture, inflection, timing, and dynamics that sting the crowd to roar applause. But by April of 1867 Pinchback was influential enough to organize New Orleans’ Fourth Ward Republican Club and win election to the party’s state committee. Whatever his eloquence, his timing was good. In February of 1867 Congress had, by the Reconstruction Acts, overthrown the southern state governments recognized by Andrew Johnson with such lenience that one black historian, John Hope Franklin, has named 1865 and 1866 the period of “Reconstruction: Confederate Style.” Now it would be different—the South occupied by Federal troops, mandatory new constitutions and elections, blacks to be guaranteed the right to vote, and most ex-Confederate officials and military officers banned from the polls until Congress said otherwise.
Pinchback confidently rode this wave of political change. In the autumn of 1867 he was chosen as a delegate to the convention to rewrite the state constitution. On the floor he submitted Article 13 of the new charter, which specifically guaranteed the equality of civil rights of all men of any color whatsoever. When the first elections under the revised form of government were held in April of 1868, Pinchback easily won the seat in the state senate for the Second District, composed of three wards in New Orleans. In 1869 President Grant, doing his bit to build a Republican machine in Louisiana, appointed Pinchback to the post of registrar of the Land Office in New Orleans, obviously having been informed that the ex-steward was a colored man worth cultivating.
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.
There seemed something almost natural in the collaboration, despite the differences in race. Each man was a newcomer to Louisiana from the midwestern heartland. Each had an instinct for profitable business arrangements. Each was to survive the end of Reconstruction by an opportune change of allegiance. Each would retire from politics rich, claiming that his source of prosperity was honest investment. Each was hot-tempered, and each was full of ambition. A New Orleans paper once described Warmoth as “one of that dangerous class that think it ‘better to reign in hell than serve in heaven.’” A Washington observer spoke of Pinchback as having “a kind of guerrilla disposition” with “some of the true soldier in it,” but likewise “a desperation and fearlessness which in an emergency would know no restraints.”
Both, in short, were gamblers, always in search of the right move at the right moment—willing to take risks for high rewards, but not without prior calculation, not on impulse. As it worked out, January of 1872 was the high point of their collaboration. Thereafter the two computed the odds differently, and their paths diverged. Pinchback’s led him to his political high point (at Warmoth’s expense) and his greatest disappointment. It all happened in the fifteen months after the ex-steward had become the presiding officer of Louisiana’s senate.
The full story is labyrinthine in its complexity. But in outline it is this: Warmoth’s enemies were not all Democrats. A substantial faction of Louisiana Republicans disliked and distrusted him and yearned for a greater share of the profits of “reconstructing” the commonwealth. The leader of this group, in 1871, was a man named William Pitt Kellogg—also a northern newcomer—who, at that time, was collector of the Port of New Orleans. As a result his associates were known as the Custom House Republicans.
During the spring and summer of 1872 Grant himself was in trouble. A rebellion in his own party resulted in the creation of a Liberal Republican movement, which denounced corruption both in the administration in Washington and in the southern Republican machines.
Warmoth judged that the mood of the country was changing and that northern support for Radical Reconstruction would not last much longer. So he moved toward the Liberal Republicans. He began to retreat from his staunch advocacy of black rights and in other ways to prepare for a change of base. When a Liberal Republican state ticket was fielded in Louisiana for the fall election of 1872, Warmoth came out in support of it, even when its supporters fused with a large faction of Democrats. Meanwhile, the Custom House Republicans —still loyal to Grant—named Kellogg for governor. They wooed Pinchback, who had gubernatorial ambitions himself. After some deliberation he decided that Kellogg’s forces offered him the best prospects, and he joined them. As immediate compensation they nominated him for congressman-atlarge. But he was interested in bigger game than that if he could not be governor. There was an understanding that if the Kellogg slate won, the new state legislature convening in January of 1873 would elect him to the United States Senate.
So, as Warmoth wrote, “the Warmoth-Pinchback faction … was broken up.” Writing of it a half century later he denounced Pinchback’s alleged ingratitude. “P.B.S. Pinchback I practically appointed to be Lieutenant-Governor of the State and came nearly to wrecking myself with my friends in doing so” was his complaint. He should never have trusted Pinchback, his old man’s memory said. “He was a restless, ambitious man and had more than once arrayed himself against me and my policies. He was a free lance and dangerous, and had to be reckoned with at all times.”
Warmoth had committed his part of the machine to the anti-Grant side; Pinchback was now in Grant’s camp. And this led to the bizarre episode of the “great train race,” which adds a comic footnote to the story.
One autumn Saturday in 1872 saw Pinchback in New York, returning from a tour of New England, where he had been spurring “colored Republicans” to efforts for Grant. Warmoth was in the city, too. The two met—governor and lieutenant governor, both far from home—exchanged personal greetings like old friends, and then Warmoth invited Pinchback to dinner at his hotel that evening and was accepted.
Pinchback now dropped in on Senators William E. Chandler and Henry Wilson, Grant’s campaign managers, and was confronted with a startling piece of information. Due to his changeover to Liberal Republicanism, Warmoth had lost control of the Louisiana legislature. He was, in fact, a lame-duck governor, due to step down in mid-January. The lawmakers had passed new election laws, nullifying the power of Warmoth’s machine to manage the tabulation of the votes in November. Warmoth, of course, had no intention of signing them into law.
But, said Chandler and Wilson, suppose Pinchback were to get back to Louisiana while Warmoth was still out of the state. Then, according to Louisiana law, he would be the acting governor—and could sign those bills. Warmoth would be unable to push through his hand-picked successor. Would Pinchback undertake to try? “If the success of the Republican party is at stake,” Pinchback reports himself as having said, “I dare do anything that will save it.”
He raced back to his hotel, packed a few necessities, and left his trunk in the hall, plainly visible so that if Warmoth came looking for him, he would assume he was still in town. By midnight of Saturday he was on a train bound for New Orleans. Unfortunately he encountered a six-hour delay in changing trains at Pittsburgh, and again was held up six hours at Cincinnati. By Sunday night he was still far, far from home. And by then his fellow gambler Warmoth had spotted the bluff and was playing high cards of his own.
Warmoth recorded that he was unsuspecting when Pinchback failed to show up for dinner. New York was, in its own way, a place with pleasant distractions for a visiting Southerner, and Warmoth assumed that his still youthful lieutenant governor had found a more interesting table companion. But on Sunday morning he ran into another black Louisianian, a friend of Pinchback’s, who said that he had not seen Pinchback at all the preceding evening. Light suddenly flashed on Warmoth, and within a few moments he had called on a major resource. The Louisiana chairman of the Liberal Republican campaign was also the manager of the Illinois Central Railroad, the iron highroad of the Mississippi Valley. Warmoth’s message to him was a simple and clear command —Pinchback must be stopped, and he, Warmoth, must catch up with him.
Sunday night sped by while the unsuspecting Pinchback ignored peculiar lengthy halts as his train wound its way southward. In the small hours of Monday or Tuesday morning (the record is not quite clear), he was sound asleep when the car squealed to a halt in the little town of Canton, Mississippi. A man came aboard and shook Pinchback awake. There was, he said, a telegram for the lieutenant governor in the station, which he must come and sign for personally. Sleepily Pinchback pulled on some clothing and followed the dancing circle of the man’s lantern into the depot. He was scarcely inside when he heard the door slam behind him and a key turn in the lock. Simultaneously came the awful, unmistakable hissing and coughing of the locomotive starting up. Reacting quickly, Pinchback spun around, found a window, jerked it open, and tumbled out onto the platform. But it was too late; the train was already vanishing.
Pinchback knew what he would see when the next train pulled in hours later. Warmoth was grinning at him from the rear platform—a fourof-a-kind grin, richly enjoyed at the expense of a man who thought that his full house had taken the pot. “Hello, old fellow,” Warmoth chirped. “What are you doing here?” “I am on my way home,” said Pinchback. “Governor Pinchback,” boomed Warmoth in what must have been a moment of rare elation that year, “step right into my car and I will take you home.”
The last laugh was Pinchback’s—temporarily. The election resulted in chaos. Two sets of returns were filed in almost every district. Those reported by Warmoth’s officials added up to a victory for the DemocraticLiberal Republican candidate, Samuel D. McEnery. But the Kellogg forces insisted that these figures were false, and throughout December pro-Kellogg state legislators presented themselves in New Orleans, then the capital, with duly attested certificates of election. Among the “victors,” according to the Kellogg group, was Pinchback—elected as congressman-at-large.
As outgoing governor, Warmoth could throw the state’s official recognition to the McEnery forces. But the members of the lame-duck legislature —mostly composed by now of men who had come to hate Warmoth—realized this, too, and moved to prevent it by voting articles of impeachment against him—58 to 6. The case would never be tried, for Warmoth had only a little over a month left in office, and everyone knew it. But under the law the mere filing of the articles suspended Warmoth officially, and Pinckney B. S. Pinchback became governor of Louisiana. Other than seeing to it that legislators “elected” on the Kellogg ticket were sworn in, he did little. His annual message mildly recommended an investigation into the actual size of the public debt and the performance of state-chartered corporations and an improvement in the law providing for state printing.
A situation both comic and ominous now developed. Two legislatures convened; each claimed to be legitimate, and each swore in a different governor. The Kellogg legislature then elected Pinchback United States senator. They had possession of the State House and the official machinery, but they had to be protected by federal troops against threats that the bitter McEnery supporters would try to throw them out by force. In May, Grant formally recognized the Kellogg regime, which was not unexpected. As it turned out, it was also not enough to help Pinchback. Grant or no Grant, the legal standing of the lawmakers who had voted for him for senator was in doubt. Therefore when he presented himself to the Congress of the United States on March 4, 1873, he was in for an argument.
Pinchback presented his credentials both to the House and to the Senate, though it was clearly to the latter body that he aspired. He would have been only the second Negro senator. (The other, Hiram R. Revels, was from Mississippi—and in 1875 he was joined by Blanche K. Bruce, likewise a Negro. Thereafter no American black was chosen to the Senate until Edward Brooke, of Massachusetts, was elected in 1960.) He craved the honor intensely, and Warmoth asserted in his memoirs that Pinchback had bragged of spending ten thousand dollars to get the seat. Since Pinchback might well have done so—and since Warmoth might well have repeated an unfounded lie—there is no way to judge.
The one certainty is that Pinchback was now submitted to an ordeal of humiliation. Both the House and Senate deferred action on the question of seating him. The reason was simply that to recognize his election was also to recognize the legality of the Kellogg government—and with a Democratic tide rising in the country (they were to win a majority in the House of Representatives in 1874 and the popular election in 1876) even loyal Republicans were backing away from the support of carpetbag regimes.
The House did not decide its part of the question until 1875—and then decided that Pinchback’s congressional opponent had the greater number of honest votes and should get the seat. Meanwhile the Senate took its time. The matter was put over to the 18731874 session, then again to the succeeding year, and it was not ultimately decided until the spring of 1876. Pinchback did not pass the time entirely unpleasantly. In the summer of 1873 Governor Kellogg appointed him the state’s representative to an international fair in Vienna. He spent several delectable weeks in that cosmopolitan capital, where his color was merely a curiosity. But eventually he had to return to the United States, there to hear every charge ever made against him raked up and debated, for his opponents denied not only the validity of his election but also his moral fitness to hold the office. In letters to various senators Pinchback pleaded with them to separate the issues—to seat him, in order to give Louisiana its proper representation in the Senate, and thereafter to let him defend his reputation.
Worse than having the dirty laundry of past politics tumbled out in the press was listening to the taunts of southern senators and representatives who were blatant in their attacks on Pinchback, whom they would have styled “an uppity nigger.” When he appeared in Washington now and then, and in the galleries of Congress, he struck observers as struggling for self-containment. One newspaperman observed that, politics aside, his presence in the Senate was “not open to the smallest objection, except the old Bourbon warwhoops of color.” But the war whoops were raised, and Pinchback had to mask “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.…” He was, said the writer, “a model indeed of good breeding to those Texas and Louisiana yahoos who shout ‘nigger, nigger, nigger,’ in default of common sense or logic.” In the face of such assaults he had to find a middle ground between defense of his full civil rights and reassurance to edgy whites that he would not try to mingle. “It is possible,” he wrote in a newspaper article in February of 1875, “that there may be Senators … supposing that I might desire to take advantage of my official position to force myself unasked on their social life. Such a supposition would not only proceed upon an unjust estimate of the purposes of my race, but would be in opposition to my own personal respect and manliness, which would prompt me as sacredly to respect the social sanctity of others as it would to protect my own.” The English of that was “I do not go where I am not wanted.”
But it was in vain. Pinchback was fighting a combination of anti-Grantism, of genuine concern about his suspicious wealth and its possible corrupt sources, and of racial distaste. On March 8, 1876, by a vote of 32 to 29, the Senate adopted a motion not to recognize him as entitled to the seat from Louisiana. Perhaps that quality of energy and freedom noted by his enemies had frightened away an extra vote or two (a shift of only two would have reversed the result). And perhaps the senators were somewhat abashed at what they had done, or at least did not find Pinchback entirely unworthy, since they awarded him $16,666 in pay and mileage for all the time, from March of 1873 until the final decision, during which he would have held office.
Pinchback was not through in politics—nor in disappointment. In 1876 the Louisiana Republican convention once more endorsed him as “our unanimous choice and only candidate for United States Senator.” But the election was almost a replay of 1872. Once more there were two governments in the state—one under the Republican, Stephen B. Packard, the other under the Democrat, Francis T. Nicholls—each claiming legitimacy, with most of the white establishment on Nicholls’ side and with federal troops protecting Packard’s legislature. Pinchback felt that Packard’s lawmakers should elect him once more to the Senate seat he had so long fought for. Instead they chose Kellogg. It was said that nineteen thousand dollars in bribes procured the result. Stung and feeling double-crossed, Pinchback now changed sides as he had done in 1872, when he had joined his old enemies the Custom House Republicans. He announced his support of Nicholls and took his following with him. In March of 1877, after a deal at the national level, federal troops were withdrawn from Louisiana, and the Packard “government” collapsed. Reconstruction was over.
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.