In the aftermath of the War of the Rebellion, a strange situation arose politically: the presence of both freedmen and ex-Confederates in politics. Not all black politicians had been born into slavery, but many were. The approaches of them differed on suffrage for ex-Confederates, with some fearing their freedoms would be compromised should ex-Confederates be restored suffrage too early and others calling for reconciliation by having everyone enfranchised, and many ex-Confederates agitated (to say the least) for the disenfranchisement of black voters. In the 1870s, both the former vice presidents of the United States and of the Confederacy were serving: Senator Hannibal Hamlin of Maine, a Republican who had once been a Democrat, and Representative Alexander Stephens of Georgia, a Democrat who had once been a Whig, like Abraham Lincoln. The first Democrat to be elected to Congress from Mississippi after the war was Lucius Quintus Cincinnatus Lamar II (1825-1893) (love that name) in 1872, who had served before the war. He distinguished himself as a reconciliatory figure through his moving tribute in 1874 to the late Senator Charles Sumner, the famous Massachusetts abolitionist. However, Lamar was a believer in white supremacy and opposed black suffrage, at least, during Reconstruction. He had also as a plantation owner once owned 31 slaves.
In 1875, Blanche K. Bruce (1841-1898) was elected to the Senate and was the first black man to serve a full term. Bruce was a man who had escaped slavery and his fellow Mississippi senator, former Confederate General and Republican James Alcorn, refused to escort him per Senate tradition. Senator Roscoe Conkling (R-N.Y.) stepped up to do so instead. This action made Conkling a hero for many blacks, and numerous black boys were subsequently named “Roscoe Conkling”, including Bruce’s son. Bruce would not be troubled by Alcorn’s antagonistic presence for long, as by the next election the Democrats won control over the state legislature, and elected Lamar to the Senate.
Bruce and Lamar served together in the Senate from 1877 to 1881 and despite the latter’s stated belief in white supremacy and opposition to Reconstruction, the two developed a cordial and friendly working relationship in securing legislation and railroad funds for Mississippi. Indeed, Bruce got on better with his white Democratic colleague than he had Alcorn. Bruce won approval from many whites for his moderate Republicanism and support for suffrage for ex-Confederates and on February 14, 1879, he presided over the Senate, the first and only former slave to do so. He stressed that while he was proud to be black, he thought of himself as a senator for both races in Mississippi. Like Lamar, Bruce was a successful plantation owner and would remain so.
The experience of working with Bruce, it turns out, may have had quite an effect on Lamar. In 1879, Lamar participated in a forum in which he supported black suffrage along with James Garfield and James G. Blaine (Crapol, 64). Indeed, race relations seemed to be improving and in 1880 blacks equaled or exceeded whites in turnout in eight Southern states and in all but two Southern states a majority of them voted (Filer, Kenny, & Morton, 371). In fact, while in Grover Cleveland’s cabinet as Interior Secretary he was one of the more open Southerners to black patronage appointments. On January 16, 1888, he was confirmed to the Supreme Court, the first Southern nominee since before the War of the Rebellion. Unfortunately, the times were not moving with Lamar.
Bruce’s successor in 1881 was Democrat James Z. George, the architect of the 1890 Mississippi Constitution that both in practice and intent disenfranchised black men by a poll tax and a literacy test that was administered in a racially discriminatory manner by local election officials. Voter fraud was also ramping up and would be used to gradually push Republicans out of office. One incident in Bolivar County, Mississippi, is described by Dennis J. Mitchell (2014) thusly, “In one instance, when suspicious black election officials hovered too closely over a box so that the Democrats could not substitute their fraudulent one, a Democratic physician among the group went out for food. Coming back with sardines and crackers, he announced that, on this special occasion, blacks and whites could eat together in violation of custom. He had injected croton oil into the black men’s sardines with a hypodermic needle, and when the sick black men rushed from the room, the Democrats switched ballot boxes” (170). In 1890, he spoke out against his state disenfranchising black voters through the adoption of Senator George’s constitution. Alcorn, on the other hand, had participated in drafting the 1890 constitution despite having backed the 14th and 15th Amendments earlier in his career. Lamar had even called for the appointment of a black cabinet member (Wilson). He was eighty years ahead of his time on this one – it wouldn’t happen until 1966 during the presidency of Lyndon B. Johnson. A group of Mississippi leaders in politics and society who aimed to improve race relations in the 1970s would reflect on Lamar’s legacy and hold that his conduct in the 1870s was a good model for Southerners in the 1970s (Wilson). If the politics of Bruce and Lamar had been stuck to perhaps freedom for both races would have prevailed in Mississippi and perhaps even social equality would have come sooner. Unfortunately, greater socioeconomic forces were at work.
Bruce, Blanche K. (1841-1898). New York University of Law.
Crapol, E.P. (2000). James G. Blaine: architect of empire. Wilmington, DE: Scholarly Resources, Inc.
Filer, J.E., Kenny, L.W., & Morton, R.B. (1991, October). Voting Laws, Educational Policies, and Minority Turnout. The Journal of Law and Economics, 34(2).
Former Slave Presides over Senate. U.S. Senate.
Mitchell, D.J. (2014). A new history of Mississippi. Jackson, MS: University Press of Mississippi.
Sansing, D.G. (2017, July 10). Alcorn, James Lusk. Mississippi Encyclopedia.
Wilson, B. (2017, October 14). L.Q.C. Lamar. Mississippi Encyclopedia.