Lynch’s life still ‘an inspiration’

Published 12:00 am Saturday, February 24, 2001

VIDALIA, La. — One of the most influential black politicians of the late 19th century, John R. Lynch, was born as a slave on Concordia Parish’s Taconey Plantation in 1847 and spent much of his youth in Natchez before going on to make his mark in the Mississippi House of Representatives and Congress.

“I personally think he was extremely important not only locally, but nationally,” said Mary Toles, a founder and first vice president of NAPAC. “He had a whole gamut of accomplishments and serves not only as an inspiration to African-Americans, but to people in general.”

According to the Afro-American Almanac, Lynch was born Sept. 10, 1847, at Taconey Plantation, the son of an Irish planter named Patrick and Catherine White, a slave. Patrick planned to move the family to New Orleans and free them, but he died before the plan could be carried out. The family was then sold to a planter in Natchez, and Lynch was freed in 1863, when the Union Army took control of the area.

After the Civil War, Lynch learned photography and managed a business in Natchez. He had learned to read and white as a slave but further educated himself by reading on his own and taking four months of classes in night school.

From there, Lynch took an interest in public office. He was first appointed as a justice of the peace in Natchez at age 21. He was then elected in 1869 to the Mississippi House of Representatives, to which he was reelected in 1871 and served a speaker of the house in the following year, according to the Encyclopedia Brittanica Guide to Black History.

Also in 1872, Lynch became the first black Mississippian elected to Congress, and he was reelected in 1874. There, he was instrumental in the debate over the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which banned discrimination in public accommodations, which was later overturned by the Supreme Court, according to information from the John C. Stennis Center for Public Service.

Lynch was defeated in reelection bids in 1876 and 1880 by James R. Chalmers, a former Confederate general, but contested the results of the last election and returned in 1881 to his congressional seat. There, he continued to introduce civil rights legislation. He lost the 1882 congressional election and retired to a plantation in Adams County the following year. Not until 1987, when U.S. Rep. Mike Espy was sworn in, would another black Mississippian be elected to Congress.

Such accomplishments, Toles said, served as an inspiration to many people, especially those whose backgrounds were similar to Lynch’s.

“His story gave hope to former slaves,’ Toles said. “He made a contribution to African-American history, particularly through the (legislation) he tried to introduce in Congress.”

But that was not the full extent of Lynch’s political life. In 1889, President Benjamin Harrison appointed Lynch as fourth auditor of the U.S. Treasury for the Navy Department. He was chairman of the Mississippi Republican Executive Committee from 1881 to 1892 and a member of the Republican National Committee from 1884 to 1889.

Lynch was appointed as paymaster during the Spanish-American War and, in 1901, began serving with the U.S. Army in the United States, Cuba and the Phillippines. After retiring from the army in 1911, Lynch sold his Mississippi land and moved to Chicago with his wife. There, he practiced law and became involved in real estate.

In 1913, he wrote the book The Facts of Reconstruction. He also served as president of the Capital Savings Bank in Washington, D.C., the first American bank owned by black people, according to the Afro-American Almanac. He died Nov. 2, 1939, in Chicago and was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery.

Josephine Webster, who retired after teaching in Concordia Parish schools for 38 years, used Lynch’s story in her reading classes as well as in black history programs she helped organize at the schools.

“I used his story in order for students to know that a local person went on to become such an influential person,” Webster said.

“It’s important for students to know that such an outstanding person came from this area.”