Reconstructing Pinchback: The Story of Gov. P.B.S. Pinchback

Elizabeth Lilly Stewart was a graduate student when Dr. Joe Gray Taylor, Chairman of the History Department at McNeese State University, asked her to write a review for a scholarly journal of a prominent Historian’s newest offering. The book she was to review, and criticize if necessary, was the first and only biography ever written of Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback, Reconstruction governor of Louisiana, and the first African American to be governor of a state. As the book was authored by James Haskins, an established scholar, she worried being viewed as immodest, or even an ‘upstart,’ should she reveal flaws in the work. I know that because I was there; she was my mother.

Why would Dr Taylor, the Historian who was, at that time, arguably America’s leading expert on Reconstruction in Louisiana, ask a graduate student to undertake such a task? The answer is that my mother had chosen to write her Master’s thesis on P.B.S. Pinchback, and was in the midst of years of primary research on the subject. She was, in effect, the best-qualified person to write such a review. My mother’s later reference to James Haskins’ biography in her own book on Pinchback reveals in part the results of the review she penned for the Louisiana History Journal. She recorded her view of Mr. Haskins’ book with generosity, though not entirely to his advantage:

“James Haskins’ skillfully blended fact and supposition to produce the first and only biography

of P.B.S. Pinchback, making knowledge of the notable black leader more accessible to the general public.”

Elizabeth Stewart taught school, cared for her husband and children, and chiseled away at her lifelong dream, a Master’s degree in History, which she attained, nearly concomitantly with a Master’s in Library Science, cum laude. Dr. Taylor was her thesis advisor, and was near completion of his award winning work on Reconstruction in Louisiana. She was passionate about the study and practice of history, and was elated to be present for her mentor’s greatest achievement. I proudly display in my home the copy of Louisiana Reconstructed he endorsed for her. It was among her most cherished possessions.

Though too fine a scholar to relegate the practice of history to ax-grinding, she was keenly aware of the controversy surrounding Pinchback, most of it associated with the corruption and chicanery well known to that period in the South, especially in Louisiana.

“That he joined the other politicians of his day in using his position for personal financial gain is a matter of record. Pinchback’s participation in the Mississippi Riverboat Packet Company and the land deal he made while Park Commissioner resulted in profit for him while costing the state many thousands of dollars… [and] made up a small portion of the web of corruption, bribery, and unethical practices for which the Republicans were blamed during Reconstruction in Louisiana.”

Were we to dismiss past players for such failings and character defects, we would have to remove from the record their sacrifices and accomplishments as well, which would be shortsighted concerning a species that has always trudged along with “feet of clay.” To examine notable people in ‘parts;’ to attempt to separate the greatness from the character defect, is to create a science experiment, and not to practice history. In any event, we have only what was recorded at the time by the participants with which to navigate the past. And though there is much we may surmise from the available evidence, we must ultimately turn to the record in light of the unarguable proposition that “they were there, and we were not.”

History must have the final word, as the great French Historian Marc Bloch wrote in his unfinished work, The Historian’s Craft, “For History is the most authoritative of dictators.” Monsieur Bloch knew something about dictators, as he wrote the previous sentence while a prisoner of the Nazis, just before being murdered by them.

So it is that Mrs. Stewart neither apologizes nor does she excuse, but rather she finds data of sufficient historical efficacy to explain and understand Pinchback, a task no one had up to that time, (and not since then), even attempted. She firmly believed that men should be considered in the context of their own time, and was to say often “I am a pastist.”

The trail my mother followed those many years poring over the papers of six presidents, the unpublished papers of Jean Toomer (Pinchback’s famous grandson and the author of Cane), and hundreds of related documents, revealed a remarkable Black political leader at a time when the very idea of ‘black political leader’ was an untried and unwelcome anomaly in America, and an ominous endeavor, even for a relatively light skinned ‘Negro’ such as Pinchback. And though in a rare historical moment “conditions were favorable,” (the period from 1870 to 1877 was dubbed the “Era of Black Power in Dixie”), she records for posterity the difficulty, the danger, and the uncertainty of Pinchback’s fortunes.

Pinchback himself could not have felt secure, and never ceased building a bulwark, or sanctuary for his mother “who had known slavery,” his wife of sixty-one years, and his beloved children and grandchildren.

“Pinchback needed more than his identification as a quadroon to become an outstanding black Reconstructionist,” Mrs. Stewart writes in her introduction. Then, with the precision of a research historian and the experience of a Southern woman raised in the Jim Crow South who rejected the bigotry of her birthplace, she demonstrates Pinchback’s struggle to do as well as the white people, and if not as well, then merely to survive in an increasingly dangerous Dixie.

Pinchback was not unique among black men in that his fortunes, at times considerable, “were inextricably tied to those of his race.” He prospered during Reconstruction, but was essentially broke by the time of his death in 1921.

Frederick Douglas, Pinchback’s friend and mutual admirer, died in 1895, leaving W.E.B. DuBois the black leader of favor. Pinchback was thought by the turn of the century too close to the Booker T. Washington-led “accomodationists,” and thus, for most of the twentieth century, on the ‘wrong side’ of history.

There is no record or indication that Pinchback had ever read Harriet Beecher Stowe’s book that would coin the term used by later generations to disparage him and the Tuskegans with the label “Uncle Tom.” Mrs. Stewart assures us that the historical record does not support such a simple derogatory; a derogatory hardly able to contain the breath and complexity of such men as Washington and Pinchback.

And while a more enlightened view has emerged since the time of the present work, the ‘new’ view, at least regarding Pinchback, is based more upon the realization of tragedy perpetrated upon black men of Pinchback’s time, and less upon a thorough study of the elusive ex-governor. Mrs. Stewart’s book on Pinchback provides a learned Historian’s look at the scattered and fading record, and confirms what intuition and modern rejection of persistent prejudice seems to have concluded: That Pinchback and other determined, self-made black men and women stood up to be counted before conditions were safe to do so, is an historical axiom. And that he and others persisted in the face of life-killing affronts when relegation to second-class citizenship was the law of the land, is a matter of record.

Contemporary observers cannot quite seem to wrap their arms around this most ambitious and energetic man. Pinchback is mentioned in nearly all books on Reconstruction written since World War II, but as though hoping not to be asked for details, Historians have so far, with the exception of the present work, neglected to go beyond their minimal obligation to mention the fact of his existence. And who could blame them? Information about Pinchback beyond government documents was, and remains difficult to obtain. As late as 1974, over fifty years after his death, Pinchback was still missing from the roster of governors in my eighth grade Louisiana History textbook.

Historical scholarship since the nineteen seventies has indeed improved the lens through which we are able to view the Tuskeegans led by Booker T. Washington—they now appear essential, and part and parcel of a singular desire for the full rights of citizenship for Black Americans. Less attention is focused now upon who was ‘right,’ or who best advanced the cause of political and civil rights, than seemed important in the years immediately following the murder of Martin Luther King, and more paid to the skill, the sacrifices, and accomplishments of the men and women who held the line so that later leaders could once again move the cause forward.

The post Reconstruction South gave birth to an historical paradigm emboldened by the zeitgeist of a region determined to throw-off any notions that they had fought against, or had been forced to accept, full-citizenship for blacks. The war they lost in 1865 was, they contended (and I often heard my grandmother assert), a “War of Northern Aggression,” no more, and no less. “States Rights was the issue,” or so the Revisionists would assert, and not in fact the South’s desire to defend chattel slavery, nor the North’s desire, albeit latent, to see slavery eradicated from the land where all men were declared, nearly a hundred years prior, to be created equal.

Revisionist Historians, in the pejorative use of the phrase, attempted to shine a warm, nostalgic light upon the ante-bellum South, and for a time succeeded in setting forth arguments for the “axiom” that black citizens could not be trusted with political power, and held up men such as Pinchback as proof of their claim. However, the Jim Crow laws that swept like fire across the South in the early part of the twentieth century, as well as attempts to frame the civil war instigated by their secession from, and dismemberment of the Union as a “just” war for the rights of free citizens, belied their arguments that the fight was for state’s rights. Poor whites in the South feared a free Negro population, wealthy whites feared the loss of their fortunes, and thus their way of life premised upon the enslavement of an entire class of Americans. Pinchback and his colleagues, in their fight for full citizenship, were, in the fervor to alter the record, either lost to history, and if not ‘lost,’ then maligned as “corrupt,” and even “dangerous.”

Mrs. Stewart’s mission was not to construct a ‘revision’ of the history of Pinchback and his times, but rather a reversion to the record. Her upbringing by a mother and grandmothers who were born and reared in the post-Reconstruction South caused her to observe that “Left to the women of the South, (and perhaps contradicting, at least in part, various feminist revisionist histories), slavery would have continued unabated.”

In the 1970’s the work of Joe Gray Taylor and James Haskins, and since then the rising tide of scholarship on Reconstruction, in the vanguard of which are Historians such as Eric Foner, Hans Trefousse, and Ted Tunnell, has lifted Pinchback as well.

Pinchback’s revival began with Haskins’ biography in 1973, which was followed by a project to have a bust of the ex-governor placed among his fellow governors in Huey P. Long’s beloved State House. Pinchback wrote and then fought for the text at the 1879 Louisiana Constitutional Convention, which provided for the creation of Southern University, where he is “held in high esteem,” and where a new engineering complex bears his name.

Although attitudes toward the “accomodationists” have changed in favor of previously suspect Black leaders, the present volume remains the only comprehensive scholarship on P.B.S. Pinchback.

Mrs. Stewart was a participant in generating the “flurry of scholarship in the 1970’s” on Reconstruction to which Professor Foner refers in his landmark book, Forever Free: The Story of Emancipation and Reconstruction. In the light of her own mentor, Joe Gray Taylor’s, and the work of other historians already extant, she did not attempt a volume on Reconstruction per se, but rather the story, as far as can be known, of one of that period’s most remarkable leaders.

In the introduction to Reconstructing Pinchback, Mrs. Stewart begins setting up her explanation of Pinchback’s extraordinary life and times:

“The meteoric rise of Pinchback to key positions in Louisiana government in the years from 1867 to 1877,” she writes, “caused observers…to characterize him as a brilliant politician, self-seeking, useful, dangerous, corrupt, upright, and shrewd.” Hegelian reductionism would not do. She wanted, first and foremost to understand, and as such her pristine, elegantly crisp prose lacks the ornamentation and editorializing (‘supposition’?) common to hitherto self-indulgent efforts regarding this complicated and controversial man.

She hoped to find simpler terms by which to convey the enormous complexities of post-bellum Louisiana for the purpose of illuminating the life of one man within the confines of the available evidence—a “witches cauldron”—and she agreed with Einstein who said that he hoped to find simpler terms for difficult and meandering constructs, “But not too simple.” I was present to hear my mother call her search for historical material on Pinchback a “search for a needle in a burning haystack.”

Agnes Smith Grosz, in the 1940’s, wrote an admirable and scholarly account of Pinchback’s political career, but the narrative tapers off in the year 1877, leaving the record of Pinchback’s remaining forty-four years essentially unexamined by lay and historian alike. “Confounding future generations,” Mrs. Stewart wrote, (and no doubt warning away historians), “is the fact that Pinchback’s personal papers were burned soon after his death,” an act which she always considered nefarious, the truth of which she was unable to prove.

But my mother was not deterred, and after over ten years dedicated to meticulous research, she composed the present volume, which provides the truth of the man, and the rest of the story of P.B.S. Pinchback’s remarkable and productive life.

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