FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: John Lynch, slave-born Congressman, historian and attorney
- As I catch up on my e-mail, here is another ANB on a Westerner, who
started in the Civil War and went on to some distinction.
I'll bet that no one in this group has ever heard of him! That included
Which says something about us.....
Judy and Bob Huddleston
10643 Sperry Street
Northglenn, CO 80234-3612
From: ANB Biography of the Day [mailto:biod-request@...]
Sent: Saturday, September 22, 2001 12:00 AM
To: ANB bioday mailing list
Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
American National Biography Online
Lynch, John Roy (10 Sept. 1847-2 Nov. 1939), U.S. congressman,
historian, and attorney, was born on "Tacony" plantation near Vidalia,
Louisiana, the son of Patrick Lynch, the manager of the plantation, and
Catherine White, a slave. Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant, purchased
his wife and two children, but in order to free them, existing state law
required they leave Louisiana. Before Patrick Lynch died, he transferred
the titles to his wife and children to a friend, William Deal, who
promised to treat them as free persons. However, when Patrick Lynch
died, Deal sold the family to a planter, Alfred W. Davis, in Natchez,
Mississippi. When Davis learned of the conditions of the transfer to
Deal, he agreed to allow Catherine Lynch to hire her own time while he
honeymooned with his new wife in Europe. Under this arrangement,
Catherine Lynch lived in Natchez, worked for various employers, and paid
$3.50 a week to an agent of Davis, keeping whatever else she earned.
On Davis's return, he and Catherine Lynch reached an agreement that her
elder son would work as a dining-room servant and the younger, John Roy,
would be Davis's valet. Catherine accepted these conditions, recognizing
that she had no alternative. Under this arrangement, John Roy Lynch
studied for confirmation and baptism in the Episcopal church, but the
Civil War intervened. Lynch attended black Baptist and Methodist
churches during and after the war. Because of a falling out with Davis's
wife, Lynch briefly worked on a plantation until he became ill.
When Union forces reached Natchez in 1863, they freed Lynch, who was
sixteen years old. He was visiting relatives at Tacony when Confederate
troops overran the plantation and began seizing the ex-slaves as
captives. Lynch convinced the troops that the workers had smallpox,
which was a ruse, and the military released them.
Lynch worked at several jobs from 1865 to 1866, including dining-room
waiter at a boarding house, cook with the Forty-ninth Illinois
Volunteers Regiment, and pantryman aboard a troop transport ship moored
at Natchez. Eventually he became a messenger in a photography shop,
where he learned the photographic developing process as a "printer." He
continued that line of work with another shop, and in 1866 he took over
the full management of a photography shop in Natchez. Briefly attending
a grammar school operated by northern teachers, he learned to read by
studying newspapers, reading books, and listening to classes given in a
white school near his shop. One of the books he studied was on
parliamentary law, which fascinated him.
In 1868 Lynch gave a number of speeches in Natchez before the local
Republican club in support of the new Mississippi state constitution.
The constitution legitimized all slave marriages, including that of his
mother and father. In his autobiography Lynch noted that the later
constitution, passed by Democrats in 1890, did away with the feature
that had legitimized marriages between whites and African Americans but
In 1869 the Natchez Republican club sent Lynch to discuss local
political appointments with the state's military governor, Adelbert
Ames. Impressed with Lynch's presentation, Ames appointed him justice of
the peace, a position Lynch had not sought. Later that year Lynch was
elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives, where he served
through 1873. In his first term he sat on the Judiciary Committee and
the Committee on Elections and Education. In his last term he served as
Speaker of the house and earned recognition and praise from Republican
and Democratic legislators and the local press. During this period he
formed an alliance with Governor James L. Alcorn, a white Republican who
urged his party to make common cause with black voters. Lynch worked
closely with other African-Americans in the Mississippi Republican
party, especially Blanche K. Bruce and James Hill. Later he fell into
disagreement with Hill, who opposed Lynch's influence in the party.
Lynch was elected to Congress in 1872 and was reelected in 1874. In
Congress, he impressed his colleagues with his knowledge of
parliamentary procedure, unusual among the small contingent of southern
African-American Republican members of Congress. Arguing forcefully for
the Civil Rights Act of 1875, he called it "an act of simple justice"
that "will be instrumental in placing the colored people in a more
independent position." He anticipated that, given more civil rights,
blacks would vote in both parties and not depend entirely on the
Defeated in the 1876 congressional election, Lynch charged his opponent
with fraud. In the election in 1880, through a series of dishonest
practices, including lost ballot boxes, miscounts, and stuffed boxes, at
least 5,000 votes for Lynch were wrongfully thrown out. General James R.
Chalmers, a Democrat, claimed victory, but Lynch contested the election.
Finally seated late in the term, Lynch served in 1882-1883. Although he
was defeated for reelection in 1882 by Henry S. Van Eaton, Lynch was
regarded as a political hero by the Republican party. He was the keynote
speaker and temporary chairman of the 1884 national convention. Lynch
was the last black keynote speaker at a national political convention
In 1884 Lynch married Ella W. Somerville. They had one child before
divorcing in 1900. From 1869 through 1905 he was successful in buying
and selling real estate, including plantations, in the Natchez region.
In 1889 President Benjamin Harrison appointed Lynch fourth auditor of
the Treasury for the Navy Department, and he served to 1893.
In 1890 Lynch protested strongly against the "George" scheme, which,
under the new Mississippi state constitution, required a literacy test
for voting. An "understanding" clause also allowed registrars to pass
whites and deny registration to African Americans who could not
satisfactorily demonstrate an understanding of the state constitution.
In 1896 Lynch and Hill led competing delegations to the Republican
National Convention. Both factions were committed to William McKinley,
and through a compromise, delegates from both groups were seated at the
convention. One of Hill's delegates bolted the McKinley slate, reducing
the influence of the Hill "machine." After the election, McKinley gave
Lynch partial control over the distribution of political patronage in
Lynch began to study law in the 1890s and was admitted to the
Mississippi bar in 1896. He subsequently obtained a license to practice
law in Washington, D.C., where he opened an office with Robert H.
Terrell, who had worked with him in the Treasury Department. He
continued with this practice into 1898.
With the outbreak of the Spanish-American War, McKinley selected Lynch
as an additional paymaster of volunteers with the rank of major in the
army. In 1900 Lynch was again a delegate to the Republican National
Convention, serving on the Committee on Platform and Resolutions and as
chair of the subcommittee that drafted the national platform.
After the war Lynch remained with the army and received a regular
commission in 1901. For three years he was assigned to Cuba, where he
learned Spanish, then he was stationed for three and a half years in
Omaha, Nebraska, and for sixteen months in San Francisco. In 1907 he
sailed for Hawaii and the Philippines. In the Philippines a medical
examiner claimed that Lynch had a serious heart condition and was
therefore unfit for service with only a few months to live. Suspecting
racial discrimination, Lynch protested directly to Washington and was
reassigned to California.
Lynch retired from the army in 1911 and moved to Chicago. In 1912 he
married Cora Williamson, who was twenty-seven years younger than he.
They had no children. Admitted to the Chicago bar by reciprocity in
1915, he practiced law for over twenty-five years. During these years he
began writing about the Reconstruction period. An early revisionist, he
anticipated the later writings of W. E. B. Du Bois and the post-World
War II historians, who looked at the achievements of African-American
politicians in the 1860s and 1870s with more objectivity than prior
historians. Lynch published several well-documented works, beginning
with The Facts of Reconstruction (1914). Initially rejected by several
presses, his critique of James Ford Rhodes's history was published in
1917 and 1918 as two articles in the Journal of Negro History and was
republished in 1922 entitled Some Historical Errors of James Ford
Rhodes. He also criticized as full of errors Claude G. Bowers's work The
Tragic Era (1920). He later incorporated a large section of his 1913
history of Reconstruction in his autobiography, Reminiscences of an
active Life, completed shortly before his death in Chicago but not
published until 1970, edited by John Hope Franklin.
An accomplished African-American author and politician, Lynch was
representative of a small group who worked with some success within the
existing political and patronage structure to create opportunities for
themselves and to fight for blacks' civil rights. Considering his
childhood as a slave and his lack of formal education,
his achievements as a politician, statesman, and historian are notable.
Some Lynch correspondence is in the papers of Carter Woodson in the
Manuscripts Division of the Library of Congress. Other sources include
Frank C. Bell, "The Life and Times of James R.
Lynch: A Case Study 1847-1939," Journal of Mississippi History 38 (Feb.
1976): 53-67; and Kenneth E. Mann, "John Roy Lynch, U.S. Congressman
from Mississippi," Negro History Bulletin 37
(Apr. 1974): 239-41. An obituary is in the New York Times, 3 Nov. 1939.
Rodney P. Carlisle
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Rodney P. Carlisle. "Lynch, John Roy";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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