BATON ROUGE, La (BRPROUD) Black history month is a time to remember important black figures and historical moments from Louisiana’s past. Today we’re spotlighting Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, the 24th governor of Louisiana and the first African-American governor in the United States.
Pinchback was born a free person of color in 1837 in Georgia to a white plantation owner and his former slave, who was of African, European, and Native American ancestry. Pinchback was sent to a private school for Black students in Ohio. After Pinchback’s father died, his mother left Georgia with Pinchback’s siblings out of fear that his father’s family would attempt to re-enslave them.
During the civil war Pinchback became a captain in the Union army and ended up in Union-occupied New Orleans. Despite being able to pass as white, Pinchback did not hide his Black ancestry and served as commander for companies of Black union soldiers. Pinchback eventually left the Union army in 1863, frustrated with the prejudice he endured.
According to a biography of his grandson, Harlem Renaissance poet Jean Toomer, that same year, Pinchback’s sister urged him to “take [his] position in the world as a white man.”
“If I were you, Pink, I would not let my ambition die. I would seek to rise and not in that class either but I would take my position in the world as a white man as you are and let the other go for be assured of this as the other you will never get your rights… I have nothing to do with the negros am not one of them. Take my advice dear brother and do the same.”Adeline Saffold, letter to P. B. S. Pinchback, April 30, 1863
However, Pinchback continued to be honest about his ancestry as he entered politics and advocated for African-American causes including the creation of Southern University.
Pinchback became a Louisiana state senator as a republican in 1868 and was chosen to be Senate Speaker Pro Tempore. When the lieutenant governor, Oscar Dunn, the first Black lieutenant governor in the state, died in office, Pinchback ascended to the second highest executive office in Louisiana’s government.
A disputed gubernatorial election the next year in which both candidates claimed victory resulted in the impeachment of Governor Henry Clay Warmoth during the short period between election day and the inauguration of the next governor.
Pinchback became governor on Dec. 9, 1872 and was in the position for just over a month before John McEnry, a democrat who had served in the Confederate army, was sworn into office as his replacement.
Pinchback intended to take a seat in the U.S. Senate after the inauguration of his successor but as a result of the same controversial election that propelled him to Louisiana’s governorship, that seat was also contested and Pinchback entered into a years-long fight for the seat which he eventually lost.
Pinchback stayed in Louisiana for a few years after his political career ended studying law at Straight University, a historically black college in New Orleans which would eventually become Dillard University. Pinchback eventually moved to Washington D.C. and after his death was interred in Metairie Cemetery.
Much of the information on Pinchback’s life comes from the 1989 biography of his grandson The Lives of Jean Toomer: A Hunger for Wholeness by the late Cynthia Earl Kerman, a former english professor at Stevenson University in Maryland.