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P.B.S. Pinchback, America’s First Black Governor

Each week, historian Sean Michael Chick will highlight some of the country's unsung heroes or pivotal figures during the Civil War era who could serve as replacements following the takedown of New Orleans' Confederate monuments. This week, learn about Union Army officer, Governor, and publisher P.B.S. Pinchback. 


Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback was once the most controversial black politician of the Reconstruction era. He was born in 1837 in Georgia to William Pinchback, a planter, and his mistress Eliza, a recently freed slave. After Pinckney's birth, William moved the family to Mississippi, and Eliza followed. The Pinchback patriarch recognized his mixed race children and they grew up in relative luxury, even attending an expensive Ohio school.

When William died, Eliza fled to Cincinnati. Pinckney at this time claimed the name Stewart, only picking up Pinchback after the Civil War. He worked as a sailor on the steamboats that moved up and down the Ohio and Mississippi Rivers. He became an acclaimed gambler and card shark and was friends with Geogre Devol, considered the best gambler on the steamboat circuit. Pinchback won a fortune that he used to buy a home in New Orleans, splitting his time in the Crescent City and in Saratoga Springs, New York where he summered. He married Emily Hawthorne, a Free Woman of Color, and they had four children, two of which were named Napoleon and Otto, the latter after Otto von Bismarck.

Pinchback was not in New Orleans when the war came, but he made his way to the city after it was captured. Known as a very charismatic man, he recruited dozens of soldiers for the 2nd Louisiana Native Guards. He served as a captain and fought at Port Hudson before commanding the garrison at Fort Pike. Nathaniel Banks’ purge of black officers depressed Pinchback, who was also passed up for promotion. He resigned in September 1863. After his resignation, Pinchback advocated for black voting rights, declaring in one speech that while he and fellow veterans did not seek social equality, they “demanded political rights” and “wanted to become men.”

After living in Alabama and failing to get into politics there, Pinchback returned to New Orleans in 1867. He organized the Fourth Ward Republican Club and the Weekly Louisianian newspaper. The avid Republican then became a state senator the next year. Pinchback was a supporter of Henry Clay Warmoth, and perhaps due to his relatively privileged background and white appearance, he was often able to gain the trust of whites. He and Warmoth had a tense relationship — his antipathy for Oscar J. Dunn and the radicals was greater, once warning other blacks to avoid the “hissing serpent” of radicalism. Pinchback helped get the constitution passed, tried to create integrated schools, and then became lieutenant governor when Dunn died.

In the corrupt Warmoth regime, Pinchback enjoyed the full benefits of his position, including swindles involving City Park and the state river packet company. Warmoth himself was impeached, and so on December 9, 1872 Pinchback became America’s first black governor. His only major action was a failure to curb political violence in New Orleans. After completing Warmoth’s remaining six weeks, Pinchback maintained low profile. He made a run for the United States Senate, but was blocked both by Democrats and his enemies in the Republican Party.

Pinchback saw that his position in the Louisiana legislature was in jeopardy. To secure it, he betrayed Warmoth and bribed four Republican legislatures to join forces with the Francis T. Nicholls wing of the Democratic Party, which was less inimical to black rights. The bought politicians were hidden away in Pinchback’s Garden District mansion. Algernon Sidney Badger and the Metropolitan Police showed up to arrest Pinchback, who answered the door holding a Henry Repeating Rifle. The White League also had men detailed to guard Pinchback, and Badger had to retreat; his fellow police were later arrested by a rival police force.

Pinchback served on the 1879 constitutional convention and helped created Southern University. From 1882 to 1885 he was a New Orleans custom official and briefly was a lawyer. He was a founder of the Comité des Citoyens, which fought segregation in Plessy v. Ferguson. In 1892 Pinchback moved to Washington D.C. He declined efforts to enlist him in the fight against Segregation. He instead lived in relative luxury, building a mansion with his fortune. He died in 1921 and was buried in Metairie Cemetery. It was fitting, since it is the place of burial for many of New Orleans’ wealthiest citizens. Pinchback is also one of the few Union war veterans buried there; Metairie is mostly known as the resting place of Confederate generals and veterans, and even for a time Jefferson Davis.

Pinchback was wily, confident, charismatic, and most of all ambitious. He certainly had high-minded goals, his finest accomplishments being the creation of Southern University and his constitutional work. Yet, it is hard to call him a hero, in the classic sense. Pinchback was a survivalist first and foremost. During the Civil War he resigned because there was no hope of promotion, although the war was far from over. He enlisted the aid the Democratic Party to save his position. He backed out of the fight against Segregation once it seemed unlikely to succeed. Pinchback was not the man for the forlorn political stand. He was a pragmatist first and foremost, which made him one of the most successful political operatives in Louisiana. Even by the wearisome standards of the day, he was shamelessly corrupt and widely considered one of the finest gamblers of the 1850s. His greatest claim to fame is being the first black governor in America. As of 2017 only three other men have had the honor: Douglas Wilder (Virginia, 1988), Deval Patrick (Massachusetts, 2006), and David Paterson (New York, 2008).

Pinchback defies easy categories. Not quite a hero, and certainly not a villain, how and if Louisiana should honor him is a difficult question. Perhaps it is fitting that his greatest commemoration is P.B.S. Pinchback Hall at Southern University.

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