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On this day in 1872

Dec. 9, 1872

An ink engraving of P.B.S. Pinchback, the first Black governor of Louisiana. Credit: The New York Public Library sketch

P.B.S. Pinchback became governor in Louisiana — the first Black officeholder to do so in the U.S. He was appointed to the position during impeachment proceedings against the elected governor. 

His father was a white Mississippi plantation owner, and his mother had been freed from slavery before her son was born. When his father died, he and his family moved to Ohio, and by age 12 he was supporting his family, eventually working on Mississippi River steamboats. 

He was so light-skinned he could have “passed” for white, but when the Civil War came, he eventually served as a captain for the 74th U.S. Colored Infantry. 

During Reconstruction, the Republican politician helped establish Louisiana’s new constitution and was elected state senator before serving as lieutenant governor and then governor. 

In “Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War,” Nicholas Lemann described Pinchback as a larger than life figure — “newspaper publisher, gambler, orator, speculator, dandy, mountebank (who) served for a few months as the state’s governor and claimed seats in both houses of (Democratically controlled) Congress following disputed elections but could not persuade the members of either party to seat him.” 


Pinchback helped establish Southern University for Black students and aided Homer Plessy’s challenge of segregation in public transportation.


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