Politics and Government

Politics During the Reconstruction

What were the political achievements of blacks at the state and local levels in the 1800s?

The contributions of blacks in the political arena were far more impressive at state and local levels than at the national level in the 1800s. For example, there were thirty-one black delegates at Georgia’s constitutional convention of 1868. In 1871 Atlanta elected blacks to city council for a one-year term. In this group was William Finch, who, while in office, worked to start a public school system for black children. After leaving office, he successfully pressured Atlanta to establish black schools.

South Carolina elected Francis L. Cardozo (1837–1903) secretary of state in 1868. He served for four years in the position and became secretary of the treasury; he was elected to two terms in 1872 and 1874, and claimed the election in 1876, but did not try to maintain his position after the downfall of the Republican regime in 1877. During the last fourteen months of his tenure as secretary of state, Cardozo employed a deputy in South Carolina while he served as professor of Latin at Howard University. A free-born native of Charleston, he pursued an education in Scotland. From 1884 to 1896 he was principal of the Colored Preparatory High School, Washington, D.C., and its successor, the M Street High School.

Another Southern state, Tennessee, elected a black to the state house. When the Tennessee legislature convened on January 6, 1873, Sampson W. Keeble (c. 1833–c. 1880) became the first black member of the state house of representatives. Born a slave in Rutherford County, Tennessee, prior to the Civil War he had worked as a roller boy and pressman for newspapers in Murfreesboro, Tennessee. Toward the end of the war he moved to Nashville, and around 1866 he established the Rock City Barber Shop. He was a member of the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company board and treasurer of the Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association’s board. The Davidson County Republican Party was the party of choice for blacks during Reconstruction. Keeble became involved and in 1872 was nominated for a seat in the state house. He won in the November 1872 election by a slim margin and took office on January 6, 1873. While in the legislature, Keeble introduced several bills that related to black businesses, the protection of black laborers, and the support of the Tennessee Manual Labor University, but the bills were defeated. Among these bills, the third was vastly important in Keeble’s political career. Black leaders who were artisans, craftsmen, and small entrepreneurs organized the Colored Agricultural and Mechanical Association. In December 1866 the association’s leaders organized the Tennessee Manual Labor University. The association was a strong political base for Keeble and others; it held an annual fair in the fall and attracted national black Republican leaders, such as John Mercer Langston and Frederick Douglass. Keeble held a second political office: he was elected magistrate of Davidson County and served from 1877 to 1882. He lost his bid for a return to the general assembly in 1878.


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