September 10, 1847 – Birth of John Roy Lynch, First African-American Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives

John Roy Lynch, the son of an Irish immigrant father and black slave mother, was born into slavery on this date in 1847. His father planned to liberate his mother (a mulatto slave), John, and his brothers but died before doing so. The father had entrusted a friend to complete the process, but the “friend” just sold the family to a new owner.

John Roy’s new job was to serve the owner’s wife by such chores as fanning her and shooing flies from her food. On Sundays, he and the other slaves listened to sermons about doing their master’s will. John Roy spoke “out of place” one day, and was sent across the river in 1862 to work in the swampy cotton fields. But by then the Civil War had started, and when the Yankees came to Mississippi, John Roy experienced “true emancipation” when he sold a chicken for a dime and bought a boat ride to Natchez.

After the war ended, Mississippi whites, like those in other parts of the South, began passing laws to incarcerate as many young black men as they could; in essence, re-enslaving them to use their manpower as before. The labor of prisoners was bought by sheriffs and judges among other opportunists and sold to corporations such as U.S. Steel, Tennessee Coal, railroads, lumber camps, and factories. The prisoners who were sent to mines were chained to their barracks at night, and required to work all day. Hundreds died of disease, accidents, or homicide, and in fact, mass burial fields near these old mines can still be located. (You can read about this in the excellent Pulitzer Prize-winning 2008 book by Douglas Blackmon, Slavery By Another Name.)

John Roy managed to escape “recapture” by becoming a messenger for a local portrait shop, and was soon running the shop himself. He went to night school to learn to read and write, and got involved in the Natchez Republican Club.

John Roy Lynch

In 1868 the new U.S. Government-appointed Governor of Mississippi, Adelbert Ames, a Radical Republican, named John Roy, then 22, as Justice of the Peace in Natchez. In November 1869, Lynch won his first elected office, serving in the Mississippi State House of Representatives. In January 1872, colleagues selected the 24–year–old as speaker. He was the first African-American to hold that position. His own success belied the fact that there was still plenty of resistance to black advancement in the South, and violence by whites steadily increased.

Lynch then sought a U.S. House seat representing coastal Mississippi, a district that encompassed the southern quarter of the state, including his Natchez home, and that was 55 percent black. He defeated the incumbent Republican for the nomination, and beat his Democratic opponent in the general election.

When the 43rd U.S. Congress (1873–1875) convened, 26–year–old John Lynch was its youngest Member. As the House History website reports:

Like other African Americans in Congress, Lynch enthusiastically promoted the Civil Rights Bill, which outlawed discrimination on public transportation and in public accommodations and provided for equal education for the races. Speaking twice before his colleagues on an issue that preoccupied much of the 43rd Congress, Lynch argued that civil rights legislation would help Black Americans achieve political independence, and claimed Democratic opposition to the bill forced freedmen to support the Republican Party. . . . Maintaining that the legislation would not force blacks and whites to mix socially, as southern Democrats feared, Lynch said, ‘It is not social rights that we desire. We have enough of that already. What we ask for is protection in the enjoyment of public rights—rights that are or should be accorded to every citizen alike.’”

In the spring of 1875, Democrats in Mississippi sought to regain power by implementing their “Mississippi Plan,” which employed economic coercion and violence to exclude black voters and Republican politicians at the state level. Governor Ames pleaded with President Ulysses S. Grant for federal help, but Grant turned the decision over to his conservative attorney general, Edwards Pierrepont, who favored states’ rights and therefore inaction.

Governor Adelbert Ames, by Matthew Brady

Lynch traveled throughout his district to get reelected, despite the threat of being physically attacked by white supremacists. “White Liners” (essentially a paramilitary unit of the Mississippi Democratic Party) roamed in large numbers, and as one Republican recalled, “just hunted the whole country clean out, just every [black] man they could see they were shooting at him just the same as birds.” William H. Harney, sheriff of Hinds County, reported to Governor Ames on September 6, 1875 (as documented in Ron Chernow’s book Grant, p. 813) that squads of white men bushwhacking through the countryside were “murdering and driving the colored people from their homes . . . The colored people are unarmed and defenseless. . . .”

Meanwhile, Pierrepont reported on September 11 to the vacationing Grant that state authorities had “no difficulty in putting down the riot, and that the sending of Federal troops would do great mischief.” (Chernow, p. 813) Governor Ames, by contrast, felt that Mississippi was in the midst of an uncontrollable insurrection.

On October 7, the sheriff of Coahoma County reported a “perfect state of terror” in his jurisdiction. Governor Ames, in the face of federal inaction, concluded that Reconstruction was basically over; white supremacists in his state had engineered a coup d’état. About blacks, he wrote to his wife (Stephen Budiansky, The Bloody Shirt: Terror After Appomattox, p. 208):

Yes, a revolution has taken place by force of arms and a race are disenfranchised . . . They are to be returned to a condition of serfdom – an era of second slavery … The nation should have acted but it was ‘tired of the annual autumnal outbreaks in the South’ … The political death of the negro will forever release the nation from the weariness from such ‘political outbreaks.’ You may think I exaggerate. Time will show you how accurate my statements are.”

Grant belatedly did send troops to Mississippi, but by then it was too late. The campaign of terror and intimidation had done its job. Black election turnout was crushed, and white Republicans stayed home as well.

Still, somehow, in this violent campaign, Lynch narrowly defended his seat, taking 13,746 votes (51 percent). Lynch was the only Republican in the Mississippi House delegation to survive the Democratic sweep in the polls.

Years later, Lynch revealed in his 1913 book The Facts of Reconstruction that, at a talk with Grant at the White House in November, 1875, he asked the president why he did not send help earlier to Mississippi. Grant told him he was warned that if he intervened in Mississippi, Republicans would lose the Ohio elections:

I should not have yielded. I believed at the time I was making a grave mistake. But as presented, it was duty on one side, and party obligation on the other. Between the two I hesitated, but finally yielded to what I believed was my party obligation.”

(He perhaps also did not know at the time about Pierrepont’s machinations behind his back.)

But Grant understood what the result of the inaction was. He predicted to Lynch that the Democrats would recapture power all throughout the South, and “that the results of the war of the rebellion will have been in a large measure lost….”

President Ulysses S. Grant by Matthew Brady, 1869

Thus, while slavery had been abolished, blacks were nevertheless prevented from exercising the rights and privileges to which they were now entitled under the Constitution. Rather, as Ron Chernow wrote in Grant, “Slavery . . . had been replaced by a caste-ridden form of second-class citizenship for southern blacks, and that counted as a national shame.” (p. 818)

As for Lynch, he spoke out against the white supremacists in his state, but to no avail. Matters worsened after 1877, when the federal government withdrew its troops from the South, and Reconstruction was considered ended.

Lynch lost the 1876 election in his district, the shape of which had been reconfigured by the Democrats to their advantage. Although Lynch contested the result of the vote, the Committee on Elections, dominated by Democrats, who controlled the House, refused to hear his case.

In 1880, Lynch again ran for the U.S. Congress in his home district, and this time, thanks to a four-way race, narrowly defeated primary opponents. The Democrat defeated Lynch in the general election, and once again Lynch contested the outcome. This time the manipulation of ballots was so blatant, the Committee on Elections ruled in Lynch’s favor, and on April 29, 1882, the House voted 125 to 83 to seat him; 62 Members abstained.

The legislative agenda of the 47th U.S. Congress (1881–1883), unlike Reconstruction–Era congresses, focused on internal improvements and tariff legislation instead of on conditions in the South and freed slaves. Even though Lynch mainly tried to advance economic initiatives for his state, he was unsuccessful at every turn. He lost his bid for reelection to a Democrat, and thereafter made two more unsuccessful bids to return to Congress.

John Roy Lynch later in life

Lynch was indefatigable, however, and remained active in Mississippi politics. He served as a Mississippi member of the Republican National Committee from 1884 to 1889. In 1884, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention. Lynch served as a temporary chairman and even delivered a keynote address, making him the only African American to deliver a keynote address at a national political convention until 1968. He returned to the Republican National Convention in 1900 to serve on the committee on platform and resolutions.

Lynch was admitted to the Mississippi bar and opened a Washington, DC, law office in 1897, practicing for one year. In 1897, the William McKinley administration appointed him a major in the U.S. Army and paymaster of volunteers in the Spanish–American War. He later served in Cuba, San Francisco, Hawaii, and the Philippines. Lynch retired as a major in 1911. Upon his return, he moved to Chicago and practiced law.

Somehow he also found the time to write and publish four books, analyzing the political situation in the South during and after Reconstruction. He is best known for his book referenced above, The Facts of Reconstruction, available in full online, which offered an alternative version of the negative histories of the Reconstruction Era promulgated by Southern writers.

He penned a number of articles with the same goal. During the 1930’s, Lynch began writing his autobiography, Reminiscences of an Active Life, which was published in 1970. He was editing the manuscript when he died at age 92 on November 2, 1939, in Chicago.

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