P.B.S. Pinchback was the first African-American governor of the United States, and was nearly a U.S. Senator before the racist power structure kept him from taking the post. Pinchback was born on this day in 1837. He remains a significant political figure, as it would be well into the 20th Century before a Black person held a gubernatorial seat.
Born Pickney Benton Stewart to a white father and former slave mother in Macon, Ga., the family was raised primarily in Ohio after the father died. As an adult, the future politician joined the Union Army during the Civil War. While initially serving with white soldiers, he later joined an all-Black unit known as the “Corps d’Afrique.”
After earning a captain’s rank, Pinchback left the Army because of the racism of the other soldiers. In a letter from his sister, he was advised to pass as a white man as presenting as a Black person would never allow him to reach the heights he could.
Using his father’s surname, Pinchback joined the Republican Party, as many Blacks did at the time and entered the world of politics. The Reconstruction Era made it possible for Blacks to briefly held positions in the government although it was rife with racism and divisiveness. In 1868, Pinchback was elected as Louisiana State Senator.
The gubernatorial appointment took place after Oscar J. Dunn, the first elected Black lieutenant governor, died in 1871. Pinchback served just over a month in the role and was elected to the State Senate in 1874. Because of his race, he was denied the seat and instead focused on his newspaper, The New Orleans Louisianan, and he served as a customs surveyor from 1882 to 1885, his last political appointment.
At the age of 50, Pinchback entered Straight University to study law and became a federal marshal in New York before settling for good in Washington, D.C. where he forged a connection with Booker T. Washington. Pinchback died at the age of 84 in 1921. His grandson, Jean Toomer, was a prominent Harlem Renaissance poet and writer.