Pioneer Black Legislators from Kentucky, 1860s-1960s
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Pioneer Black Legislators from Kentucky, 1860s-1960s

The 1860s created, or at least made possible, a whole new political world in Kentucky—and in all the South, indeed across America. Universal emancipation came late to Kentucky with the Thirteenth Amendment. The Civil Rights Act of 1866, followed by the Fourteenth Amendment, declared African Americans to be citizens. And the Fifteenth Amendment conferred voting rights on all black men. Only one American of known African ancestry gained election to any state legislature before 1865, but even before 1870 any number of others did.

A survey of pioneer black members of American state legislatures offers an illuminating approach to calibrating the historical contours of African American political power. The ability to run as a black candidate and win—in a race not just for a minor local office but for a seat in the state legislature—is a key historical marker of black political power, as well as a means for attaining a diminished regime of white supremacy and black exclusion. And Kentucky is a representative state for the 1860s and after—a slave state during the Civil War but not a member of the Confederacy; a state subject to the three post-Civil War constitutional amendments but not subject to the Congressional Reconstruction legislation of 1867; a state with proportionately far fewer African Americans than in most states of [End Page 533] the South but far more than in the states outside the South during the Civil War era.1

Alexander Lucius Twilight, the only legislator with African ancestry elected before the Civil War, served in Vermont in 1836-37. Even before the Fifteenth Amendment took away from states the authority to deny voting rights on the basis of racial identity, other black legislators gained election in some states—Edward G. Walker (son of David Walker, author of Walker's Appeal) and Charles L. Mitchell in Massachusetts in 1866, soon followed by black candidates in ten states of the former Confederacy.2

Black men from Kentucky gained election to state legislatures in three categories. Some promptly won seats in other southern states, including Arkansas and South Carolina. Some became legislators outside the South, including the adjacent states of Illinois and Ohio. And—finally—native black Kentuckians found themselves winning an occasional election to the Kentucky state legislature, though never [End Page 534] more than one at a time until a century after the Civil War. Each of these three clusters supplies a window on the new political possibilities in post-Civil War America. Each relates as well to other dimensions of black citizenship and equality in the long aftermath of the 1860s.

Migration patterns, as reflected in the movement of pioneer black legislators who had been born in Kentucky, reveal that the borders of the Bluegrass State were easily passed through. Before the Civil War, slaves from Kentucky were sold farther south, and free blacks left for free states. During and immediately after the war, black Kentuckians left for greener pastures, where freedom came sooner or was more full-bodied. At first, that might be the Cotton South of the former Confederacy. For far longer—for generations after the war—they left for states outside the South, especially the states of the Northwest Ordinance or the Louisiana Purchase.

Black Kentucky Natives Elected in Other Southern States

Benjamin Franklin Randolph (?-1868) was born free in Kentucky. When he was still young, his family moved to Warren County, Ohio, and there he attended elementary school. He enrolled at Oberlin College in Oberlin, Ohio, in 1854, first in the preparatory department to complete high school, then in the college. After graduation in 1862, he was ordained a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church (North) and subsequently served as a chaplain with U.S. Colored Troops in South Carolina. After the war, Randolph worked with the American Missionary Association and the Freedmen's Bureau in South Carolina, and he edited two newspapers in Charleston. Both a minister and a politician, he worked with the Union League to organize the Republican Party, and he was elected to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention and then later that year to the state senate. Randolph...