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The Burden of Local Black Leadership during Reconstruction: A Research Note Randolph B. Campbell The onset of Congressional Reconstruction in 1867 brought black Southerners their first opportunity to hold public office. Those who accepted the challenge generally faced extreme hostility from the majority of whites and only lukewarm support from their colleagues in the fledgling Republican party. Moreover, many were still adjusting to the responsibilities of earning a living and supporting their families as free men. It is difficult to imagine the courage and perseverance required of the first black officeholders across the old Confederacy, especially those who operated exclusively at the local level in rural areas. The case of Plato Thompson of San Augustine County, Texas, provides a glimpse of the obstacles faced by one of these new political participants. In recent years historians have given considerable attention to black leaders during Reconstruction, but most of the men studied held at least a few statelevel positions, usually serving in constitutional conventions or state legislatures. ' The same is true of the black leaders described in the works of Texas historians. J. Mason Brewer's 1935 pioneering study dealt only with state legislators. Merline Pitre's Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: Black Leadership in Texas, 1868-1900 (1985) documented the struggles of those who served in the constitutional conventions of 1868-69 and 1^TS and in the legislature from Reconstruction to the turn of the century. A 1986 article by Alwyn Barr provided a notable analysis of the fourteen African 1 A good general summary of black political leadership during Reconstruction is Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988), 110-19, 285-88, 442-43. Howard N. Rabinowitz, ed.. Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana: Univ. of Illinois Press, 1982), presents an outstanding collection of essays on state and urban leaders. One study that does emphasize local leaders in rural areas is Edward Magdol, A Right to the Land: Essays on the Freedmen's Community (Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1977). Civil War History, Vol. XXXIX, No. 2, © 1993 by The Kent State University Press BURDEN OF LOCAL BLACK LEADERSHIPI49 Americans who served in the Twelfth Legislature (1870-71).2 Thus, in Texas, as across the South, much less attention has been given to blacks who held office only at the local level in rural areas—those who served, for example , on commissioners courts or in lesser positions in county government. Reasons for this neglect are numerous; the most obvious one being the difficulty of finding enough material to tell the stories of men who never held onice outside a particular county. Therefore, every shred of evidence on the experiences of local black officeholders is valuable. The letter that follows was written on December 17, 1867, by Plato Thompson, a black man in San Augustine County, to General Joseph J. Reynolds , commander of the District of Texas. Thompson, who was in his late forties at the time, had served during the summer and fall of 1867 on the local three-man Board of Registrars that enrolled eligible voters according to rules established by Congress, and then, on November 1, he had received a military appointment to the office of county commissioner in San Augustine. He refused to accept the appointment, however, and explained his reasons in a letter that provides an eloquent testimonial to the almost insurmountable problems facing local black leaders in this era.3 San Augustine County, Texas December 16th, 1867 J. J. Reynolds Bvt. Major General U.S.A. Comdg. Distr. of Texas Austin, Texas Sir, It seems that I should acknowledge the honor recently confered upon me by my appointment as one of the county commissioners of this county with the three other appointees as fellow commissioners; and a sense of duty impels me to do so; and to state my reasons for the nonacceptance of the office at your hands. My domestic 2 J. Mason Brewer, Negro Legislators ofTexas (Dallas: Mathis, 1935); Merline Pitre, Through Many Dangers, Toils and Snares: The Black Leadership of Texas, 1868-1900 (Austin: Eakin Press, 1985); Alwyn Barr, "Black Legislators of Reconstruction Texas," CiVi/ War History 32 (December 1986): 340-52. 3...


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