There have only been four black governors of U.S. states. Pinckney Pinchback was the first.
Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback was white-passing. His mother was a slave of African, Native American, and European ancestry. His father was a slave-owner of European-American ancestry.
So, if this series is exclusively black people, why am I including a white-passing man? Because, when he was climbing through the ranks of Southern politics, the racists in Louisiana suddenly remembered that he wasn’t white enough.
P.B.S. Pinchback was born in Georgia in 1837. Soon after his birth, his family moved to a plantation in Mississippi. When Pinchback’s father died in 1848, his father’s side of the family disinherited Pinchback’s family. Fearing that the children would be re-enslaved, they fled to Ohio (a free state).
In 1862, Pinchback made his way to New Orleans, Louisiana to fight for the Union’s all-black 1st Louisiana Native Guards Regiment. He became commander of the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards Regiment, made up mostly of former slaves. The discrimination he faced from his white commanding officers became too much, and he left the Union Army in 1863.
In 1868, Pinchback was elected a Louisiana State Senator. At the time of Reconstruction, black voters gained an influential presence in the former Confederacy. In Louisiana, half of the state House of Representatives was made up of representatives of African ancestry. This began Pinchback’s ascension through the ranks of Louisiana politics.
In 1871, the lieutenant governor of Louisiana, Oscar Dunn, died. Pinchback was selected to fill the vacant position.
In 1872, the current governor was impeached, and Louisiana law required that he step aside while the case was pending. On December 9, 1872, P.B.S. Pinchback took the oath of office and became the first governor of a U.S. state with African ancestry. He served for 35 days.
In 1874, Pinchback was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives as Louisiana’s first African-American congressman.
In 1876, the Louisiana State Legislature selected Pinchback for the U.S. Senate. Then, things began to go south for P.B.S. Pinchback.
Emboldened by the winding down of Reconstruction, white Democrats in Louisiana contested the election results. The Democrats insisted that their candidate had actually won the election. Democrats mobilized the White League, a militant and hyper-violent band of Confederate-sympathizers, to suppress the black vote and re-establish white supremacy in Louisiana. Pinchback was never seated in the U.S. Senate, though he had rightfully won the election.
Side note: The White League was also responsible for the 1873 Colfax Massacre in Colfax, Louisiana. Around 150 black people were killed in that incident.
Pinchback returned to a life advocating for equality for all Americans. He was a member of the Citizen’s Committee which organized the Homer Plessy train ride resulting in the trial, Plessy v. Ferguson.
He died in 1921 in Washington, DC. His body was returned to New Orleans, LA.
Why he should be remembered: There have only been four state governors of African-American descent. Pinchback was the first. 118 years passed before the second black governor took office. Also, he could have lived a life of privilege but instead, he celebrated his ancestry and likely cost himself an illustrious political career.
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Keep coming back for another article each day of Black History Month.