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Historians highlight first black legislative caucus

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by Markeshia Ricks, Montgomery Advertiser

alabamalegislationEach year during the month of February, Americans get a crash course in black history that usually starts with slavery and makes a beeline to the civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s — with very little in-between.

But Martha O’Rourke-Arrow is making it her mission to change that, particularly when it comes to the Alabama Legislature, and she might find some interesting allies in the state’s existing Legislative Black Caucus and Republican Party.

O’Rourke-Arrow is the great-great granddaughter of Shandy Wesley Jones, a black man from Tuscaloosa, who served in the Alabama Legislature during Reconstruction.

Jones was one of 27 black men elected to the state Legislature in time for the 1868 session. The men made up what O’Rourke-Arrow likes to call the first black legislative caucus.

“These men were the leaders in their respective communities and they were the individuals who led the first voter registration projects for African Americans,” she said. “These were the first community leaders who fought for basic human rights for African Americans.”

Between 1867 and 1878, 103 black men served in the Alabama and the U.S. Congress. Four men — George W. Cox, Holland Thompson, J.L. Williams and William Turner — represented Montgomery and Elmore counties.

O’Rourke-Arrow said she discovered that her great-great grandfather, Jones, was a man of many hats who, though a former slave, grew up a free man of color in antebellum Alabama, a rarity considering state law in the 1830s required freed slaves to leave the state.

“I found out that he was a phenomenal person having been an entrepreneur, an educated man, an abolitionist, a minister, an elder in the AME Zion Church, a port inspector, and much, much more,” she said. “I couldn’t believe that an African American had accomplished all of that and more in the 1800s and better than that I couldn’t believe that I was his descendant.”

She happened upon the information through a family history that her cousins published back in the 1990s, and has been trying to find out more about all of the men who were some of Alabama’s first black officeholders in hopes that they might someday be recognized by the state. Her own great-great grandfather has been recognized by the city of Tuscaloosa as the first black elected official of that community.

Alabama historian Richard Bailey, who has written extensively about the black politicians of Reconstruction Alabama, said there is plenty of research available about black Reconstruction officeholders in other states for the same time period.

But Alabama’s black Reconstruction era politicians have not had the same extensive treatment in mainstream history, according to Bailey, who is the author of the coming fourth edition of “Neither Carpetbaggers Nor Scalawags: Black Officeholders during the Reconstruction of Alabama 1867-1878.”

Among those who have not recognized the men are their successors in the state Legislature.

Bailey said these early trailblazers, a few of whom would go on to serve in the U.S. Congress, had diverse socioeconomic backgrounds and racial make-up.

“This group did not conform to any stereotype,” Bailey said. “Some had complexions as dark as midnight: others could pass for white. Some were very wealthy, and some were dirt poor. They weren’t all former slaves, but some of them were born free and some were manumitted (freed by their owners) before the war.”

Shandy Jones, who had a white father and a mother of black and white parentage, was one of the men who could pass for white. He was manumitted at 3 years old, but it is not known whether he ever received any formal education, according to “The Descendants of Shandy Wesley Jones and Evalina Love Jones: The Story of an African American Family of Tuscaloosa, Alabama,” written by Ophelia Pinkard and Barbara Clark.

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And unlike the 33 black legislators, who now serve in the Alabama House and Senate, Jones and the other Reconstruction black legislators owed their allegiance to the party of Lincoln — the Republican Party.

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Philip Bryan, spokesman for the Alabama Republican Party, said many people downplay African Americans’ role in the formation of the party, and today’s state party would be interested in having the men recognized.

“The Republican Party’s history is very unique in the way that we formed,” he said. “It was built with the help of African Americans who were loyal to Lincoln and really championed his ideas.

“A lot of people like to say ‘It’s not the same party,’ but Republican ideals and values have not changed.”

They’ll find an ally across the aisle from one of the most vocal Democrats in the Alabama Legislature: state Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery.

Holmes, the chairman of the civil rights division for the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus, said he first tried to have the men recognized back in the mid-1970s when he was first elected to the House. But he said the racial climate in the state Legislature was a lot less friendly during that time.

“It was rough back then,” said Holmes, who also is an assistant professor of history at Alabama State University and is familiar with the stories of the Reconstruction-era black legislators.

“At the time when I first introduced a resolution honoring blacks for serving in the legislature, one white legislator from Calhoun County came to the microphone and said, ‘We don’t want to honor no blacks. We don’t care what they did.'”

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Holmes said he believes a resolution honoring the men would be something that blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans in the current state Legislature could support, and wants to bring it up again.

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“There’s no question about whether we should do it,” Holmes said of the resolution. “The men who served during the Reconstruction period in the House of Representatives need to be commended, and their pictures should be hung in the gallery of the House, or at least all of their names should be displayed.”

Bailey said unlike the political dynasties that Alabama has produced, none of the black legislators who served during Reconstruction are connected to black legislators who serve today. When the federal government pulled out of the South in the late 1870s, black politicians saw any toehold they had in government disappear for 100 years, he said.

O’Rourke-Arrow, who works for the Mississippi Senate, said she hopes that Alabama will finally recognize the men’s contribution to the state.

“Many states have recognized their African-American legislators that were elected during Reconstruction, but Alabama has not,” she said.

“It is my hope that we will be able to identify the descendants of the other 26 African-American men who served in the Alabama House of Representatives in hopes of appealing to the Alabama Legislature for proper recognition of these outstanding men.”

And unlike the 33 black legislators, who now serve in the Alabama House and Senate, Jones and the other Reconstruction black legislators owed their allegiance to the party of Lincoln — the Republican Party.

Philip Bryan, spokesman for the Alabama Republican Party, said many people downplay African Americans’ role in the formation of the party, and today’s state party would be interested in having the men recognized.

“The Republican Party’s history is very unique in the way that we formed,” he said. “It was built with the help of African Americans who were loyal to Lincoln and really championed his ideas.

“A lot of people like to say ‘It’s not the same party,’ but Republican ideals and values have not changed.”

They’ll find an ally across the aisle from one of the most vocal Democrats in the Alabama Legislature: state Rep. Alvin Holmes, D-Montgomery.

Holmes, the chairman of the civil rights division for the Alabama Black Legislative Caucus, said he first tried to have the men recognized back in the mid-1970s when he was first elected to the House. But he said the racial climate in the state Legislature was a lot less friendly during that time.

“It was rough back then,” said Holmes, who also is an assistant professor of history at Alabama State University and is familiar with the stories of the Reconstruction-era black legislators.

“At the time when I first introduced a resolution honoring blacks for serving in the legislature, one white legislator from Calhoun County came to the microphone and said, ‘We don’t want to honor no blacks. We don’t care what they did.'”

Holmes said he believes a resolution honoring the men would be something that blacks and whites, Democrats and Republicans in the current state Legislature could support, and wants to bring it up again.

“There’s no question about whether we should do it,” Holmes said of the resolution. “The men who served during the Reconstruction period in the House of Representatives need to be commended, and their pictures should be hung in the gallery of the House, or at least all of their names should be displayed.”

Bailey said unlike the political dynasties that Alabama has produced, none of the black legislators who served during Reconstruction are connected to black legislators who serve today. When the federal government pulled out of the South in the late 1870s, black politicians saw any toehold they had in government disappear for 100 years, he said.

O’Rourke-Arrow, who works for the Mississippi Senate, said she hopes that Alabama will finally recognize the men’s contribution to the state.

“Many states have recognized their African-American legislators that were elected during Reconstruction, but Alabama has not,” she said.

“It is my hope that we will be able to identify the descendants of the other 26 African-American men who served in the Alabama House of Representatives in hopes of appealing to the Alabama Legislature for proper recognition of these outstanding men.”

Written by Symphony

February 28, 2009 at 7:56 am

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