Most black politicians today are Democrats as are most black voters, but the first generation of black politicians in the United States were all Republicans from the South, their time in American politics being from Reconstruction until the last of them left Congress in 1901. One of the most notable and the last survivor among them was John Roy Lynch (1847-1939).
Born into slavery, Lynch was mixed-race, with his father, Patrick Lynch, being the lead overseer of the Tacony Plantation and his mother, Catherine White, being a mixed-race slave. Lynch died in 1849 before he could finalize plans to free his family, and he served as valet to his owner, Alfred W. Davis, who Lynch would recall as “reasonable, fair, and considerate” (U.S. House). In 1862, he was drafted into the Confederate Army for service and remained enslaved until the following year, when he was freed after the Union Army captured Natchez, Mississippi. Lynch took full advantage of his opportunities, taking every chance he could to educate himself while working in the photography business. He soon got into politics, and in 1869 Governor Adelbert Ames appointed the 22-year old a justice of the peace, becoming the second black man to hold public office in Mississippi. The following year, Lynch was elected to the State Legislature and was elected the first black Speaker of the House of any state legislative body. He followed this up with his election in 1872 to Congress, being the minimum Constitutionally required age of 25 at seating. Lynch generally voted for conservative positions on economics, but would support a few inflationary measures in his first term. As a member of Congress, he passionately argued for the Civil Rights Act of 1875, stating, “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” (U.S. House). In 1874, he would be the only Republican representative to win reelection in Mississippi, prevailing with 51% of the vote.
Lynch devoted his second term to defending Reconstruction and 1876 he lost reelection to Democrat James R. Chalmers as the Democratic-controlled Mississippi State Legislature had through the power of redistricting placed him in a Democratic district. Unlike in other areas of the state, Lynch managed to prevent riots at his speeches and the opposition consisted of jeers and groans (U.S. House). Although he contested the election, the Democratic majority refused to hear the case. In 1880, Lynch ran again and although he initially lost, he again contested the election and the majority, which was Republican this time, seated him instead. He focused on economic issues in this term, attempting to aid depositors who had lost money with the failure of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company and promoting tariffs. He again lost reelection in 1882, a bad year overall for Republicans, by only 600 votes. Lynch would make two unsuccessful bids to return to Congress after. His MC-Index score for his three terms was an 85%. In 1884, he was the temporary chairman of the Republican National Convention, with future President Theodore Roosevelt making the speech nominating him. Lynch subsequently served in appointed posts as well as in the army, fighting in the Spanish-American War and attaining the rank of major.
In 1911, he retired from political life and moved to Chicago the following year. He became active as a historian and countered the Dunning School of Reconstruction historical narrative with The Facts of Reconstruction in 1913, arguing that the Dunning School downplayed substantial black contributions during the Reconstruction Era. Lynch was also a frequent critic of historian James Ford Rhodes’ coverage of Reconstruction, who had written that granting suffrage to blacks during Reconstruction had been a mistake. He wrote journal articles as well as Some Historical Errors of James Ford Rhodes (1922) in response. Lynch also wrote his autobiography, appropriately titled Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch, which would be published posthumously. He was the last surviving member of this era of black politicians, dying in Chicago on November 2, 1939. Lynch’s life had been so long that he had been born during the Mexican-American War and died two months after the start of World War II.
John R. Lynch: Natchez’s Reconstruction Era Icon. Historic Natchez Foundation.
John Roy Lynch. The Mississippi Encyclopedia.
Lynch, John Roy. U.S. House of Representatives.