Who Was the First African American Governor of a US State?

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A Brief History

On December 9, 1872, P. B. S. Pinchback became the first ever African American governor of Louisiana, and in fact the first ever African American governor of any US State.  Pinchback came to the governorship via the death of the serving Lieutenant Governor, a post to which he ascended from his position as President Pro Tempore of the Louisiana Senate, and then stepping up to the governorship when the elected governor, Henry Clay Warmoth was suspended from that office due to impeachment proceedings.  Pinchback served only 34 days as Governor of Louisiana.

Digging Deeper

Born Pinckney Benton Stewart in 1837 in Macon, Georgia, Stewart was the son of a former slave woman, a mulatto named Eliza Stewart, and a White plantation owner, a Major William Pinchback.  Major Pinchback had been the owner of Eliza Stewart and had freed the woman in 1836.  (Relationships were even more complicated then than they are now!)  Although the Major had a “legitimate” White family, he fathered a total of 6 surviving children by Stewart, including little Pinckney.  Along with White European and African ethnic heritage, Eliza also was part Native American.

Major Pinchback moved both his families to Mississippi, to a larger plantation when PBS was still young.  Despite the prejudices and discriminatory laws of the day, and the fact that the children of Eliza were considered “illegitimate,” Stewart raised his mixed race children with similar conditions and educations to his White children.  Pinckney and his brother, Napoleon, were sent North to Cincinnati for formal schooling.  Upon the death of Major Pinchback, Eliza moved her family to Ohio, a “Free” state, to avoid any claims on the “ownership” of her family by Pinchback’s surviving White relatives.

Pinckney worked to help support his family, and by 1860 started a family of his own by marrying a “free” woman of “color.”  (Mixed race person.)  The family moved to New Orleans, but also maintained a summer home in New York State.  In 1862 Pinckney joined the Union Army in New Orleans and helped raise much of the all-black 1st Louisiana Native Guards Regiment.  The soldiers he recruited were both freemen and slaves that had escaped or been freed by action during the American Civil War.  Pinckney was appointed a Captain in the Union Army, one of the rare men of color to be commissioned as an officer.  “Pink” resigned his commission in 1863, disgusted by being passed over for promotion (twice) and the general discrimination he encountered within the Army.

After the end of the Civil War Pinckney took the surname “Pinchback” after his father, and moved his family to Alabama, then back to Louisiana where he became active in post-war politics, joining the Republican party.  Elected as a State Senator in Louisiana, Pinckney rose to become the President Pro Tempore of the Senate, the position he held when the Lieutenant Governor position became vacant, elevating him to that office.  When the Governor was impeached, Pinckney was sworn in as Governor of Louisiana in 1872, the first American person with African heritage to hold such an office.  Though he only served a little over a month in that office, his tenure marked a milestone in African American History.  (Note: Governor Warmoth was not convicted and resumed his office when the charges against him were dropped.)

Political pandemonium had manifested itself into Louisiana politics by 1872, with racial discord and a rising White Nationalism movement disrupting elections and political processes.  Pinckney was elected as a US Representative from Louisiana, but wanted to be appointed as a US Senator, ceding his presumed seat in the US House to hold out for the Senate.  The rise of White Democrats foiled his plan to become a Senator, and Pinckney encountered increasing opposition from White politicians.

Still active in politics despite the hurdles encountered, Pinckney ended his political career as the Customs Surveyor of New Orleans in 1882.  Having helped found the Southern University as a Black college, Pinckney began to study the Law at Straight University (later renamed Dillard when it merged with New Orleans University) in New Orleans, gaining admission to the Bar of Louisiana in 1886.  He remained active in pursuit of Civil Rights for African Americans, and moved his family to Washington, D.C. in 1892.  He became part of the Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson 1896 that established “separate but equal” schooling for Blacks and Whites was within the bounds of the Constitution.  Along the way, Pinckney also served as a US Marshall for a while.  PBS Pinchback had made a decent living for himself and his family, ascending into the upper crust of the mixed race society of his day.  Pinchback died at the age of 84 in 1921, by then no longer a well known political name.

The legacy of PBS Pinckney was somewhat muted by the fact that it took over a century for another African American to get elected (1989) and be sworn in (1990) as Governor of a state, in this case Governor Douglas Wilder of Virginia, the first African American elected to a governorship.  The only other African American Governor of a US state was Governor David Paterson of New York, who ascended to that office as the sitting Lieutenant Governor when the serving Governor Eliot Spitzer resigned the office.

While PBS Pinchback may not receive the historical notice of some other African American figures, he deserves to be remembered and honored for his considerable contributions to American society.

Question for students (and subscribers): What US state will be the next to elect an African American governor?  Please let us know in the comments section below this article.

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Historical Evidence

For more information, please see…

King, Kendra. African American Politics. Polity Press, 2010.

Marsh, Carole. P.B.S. Pinchback: First African American Governor. Gallopade, 2005.

Stewart, Jeffrey. 1001 Things Everyone Should Know About African American History.  Three Rivers Press, 1898.

The featured image in this article, a photograph by Infrogmation of New Orleans of the Tomb of Governor P.B.S. Pinchback, Metairie Cemetery, New Orleans, is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution-Share Alike 3.0 Unported license.


About Author

Major Dan

Major Dan is a retired veteran of the United States Marine Corps. He served during the Cold War and has traveled to many countries around the world. Prior to his military service, he graduated from Cleveland State University, having majored in sociology. Following his military service, he worked as a police officer eventually earning the rank of captain prior to his retirement.