John R. Lynch

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John Roy Lynch
John R. Lynch.jpg
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 6th district
In office
March 4, 1873 - March 4, 1877 and April 29, 1882 - March 3, 1883
Preceded by James Ronald Chalmers
Succeeded by Henry Smith Van Eaton
Personal details
Born (1847-09-10)September 10, 1847
near Vidalia, Concordia Parish, Louisiana
Died November 2, 1939(1939-11-02) (aged 92)
Chicago, Illinois
Political party Republican

John Roy Lynch (September 10, 1847 – November 2, 1939) was an American politician, writer, attorney and military officer. Born into slavery, he became free in 1863. In 1873 he was elected as the first African-American Speaker of the Mississippi House of Representatives. During Reconstruction after the American Civil War, he was among the first generation of African Americans elected to the U.S House of Representatives, serving 1874-1877 and again in the 1880s. Of mixed race, he was of majority European ancestry.

After Democrats regained power in the state legislature and Reconstruction ended, in his 50s Lynch studied law; he was admitted to the Mississippi bar in 1896. As the state legislature had disfranchised blacks in 1890 under the new constitution, Lynch left the state and moved to Washington, DC to practice law. He served in the United States Army during the Spanish American War and for a decade in the early 1900s, achieving the rank of major. After retiring, Lynch moved to Chicago, Illinois, where he lived for more than two decades. He was active in law and real estate in Chicago after his military service.

Beginning in 1877, Lynch published four books, analyzing the political situation during and after Reconstruction. He is best known for his book, The Facts of Reconstruction (1913). It is available for free online at the Gutenberg Project. In it, he argued against the prevailing view of the Dunning School, white historians who downplayed African-American contributions and the achievements of the Reconstruction era. He emphasized the significance of ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments to the Constitution, which granted full citizenship without restriction of race or color, and suffrage to minority males.

Early life and education[edit]

John R. Lynch was born into slavery in 1847 on Tacony Plantation near Vidalia, Concordia Parish, Louisiana. He was the third son of his mother Catherine White, who was enslaved. Born in Virginia, she was of mixed race, as were both of her parents, Robert and Elizabeth White. Under slavery law, the children of slave mothers were slaves, regardless of paternity. John's father Patrick Lynch was his white master; a young immigrant from Dublin, Ireland, the senior Lynch had lived in Zanesville, Ohio with his parents. He moved South with his older brother Edward and became manager at the Tacony Plantation. There Patrick fell in love with Catherine and they became a couple,[1] living together as man and wife. (They were prohibited from marrying by state law.)

To protect his family, Patrick Lynch bought Catherine and their sons from the Tacony plantation owner. But a new owner bought the plantation and hired a different manager. Lynch could not afford to post the $1000 bond required for each person in his family in order to free them. (The state legislature was trying to reduce the number of free people of color, and increasing European immigration led it to restrict manumissions, ending them in 1852.[2]) In addition, he would have to submit a request for manumission to an Emancipation Court.[2] He planned to move with his family to New Orleans, where his brother Edward Lynch lived, and try to save money to secure their freedom. The city had a large population of free people of color, who had achieved education and economic status. Lynch died in 1849 of illness before carrying out his plan.[1]

Patrick Lynch arranged for a friend, William G. Deal, to take title of Catherine, William and John before he died, with the understanding that this was purely a legality to protect the family, who continued to work at Tacony plantation. But after a time, Deal sold them to Alfred Vidal Davis, a planter in Natchez, Mississippi.[1] When she met Davis, Catherine was shocked to learn of the sale and told him her story. He offered to keep her and her two sons with her (one had died by this time), and to have her be connected to his household. He also allowed her to hire out and save some of the money she earned. He kept his word for much of the time, but Catherine and her two sons were legally held in slavery until 1863. (One son had died.) Because of an argument with Mrs. Davis, John Lynch was sent to field labor on the plantation. After the Union Army had reached Mississippi and President Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, he became free. Lynch was then 16 years old.[1]

Lynch worked with elements of the Union Army while units were in the area. After the Civil War ended in 1865, a friend of his father's arranged for him to work for a photographer. Lynch proved himself, taking on responsibilities until he managed the entire operation and its finances. He built a successful business in Natchez. Wanting to continue his education, he attended a night school taught by Northerners. (By the end of 1866, many such teachers were driven out of the state by violent opposition of whites to the education of freedmen.[3]) He also read widely in books and newspapers during lulls in his business day. As Lynch's business was near a white school, the young man often eavesdropped on lessons through the open windows.[4]


Lynch's leadership abilities were quickly recognized in Natchez and he gained post-war political opportunities, becoming active in the Republican Party by the age of 20. Although too young to participate as a delegate, he attended the constitutional convention of 1867, studying its developments closely. The first proposed constitution was defeated, largely because of disfranchisement of former Confederates.

In April 1869 at the age of 22, he was appointed by the military governor, Adelbert Ames, as a Justice of the Peace in Natchez. Later that year Lynch was elected as a Republican to the Mississippi State House. He was re-elected, serving until 1873. In his last term, he was elected as Speaker of the Mississippi House, the first African American to achieve that position.[5][not in citation given]

At the age of 26 in 1873, Lynch was elected to the US Congress from Mississippi's 6th congressional district, as part of the first generation of African-American Congressmen. He introduced many bills and argued on their behalf. Perhaps his greatest effort was in the long debate supporting the Civil Rights Act of 1875 to ban discrimination in public accommodations. He was one of seven African-American Congressmen present, who all testified in 1874 as to personal and known experience of the effects of discrimination in this area.

One of his speeches included the following:

They were faithful and true to you then; they are no less so today. And yet they ask no special favors as a class; they ask no special protection as a race. They feel that they purchased their inheritance, when upon the battlefields of this country, they watered the tree of liberty with the precious blood that flowed from their loyal veins. They ask no favors, they desire; and must have; an equal chance in the race of life.

In 1876 the Democratic Party of Mississippi contested Lynch's third-term election; for years, elections in the state were increasingly accompanied by violence and fraud as Democrats worked to regain political power. Since 1874, the Red Shirts, a white paramilitary group active on behalf of the Democratic Party, had worked openly to intimidate and suppress black voting, assassinating blacks and running Republican officers out of town. By then Congress was dominated by Democrats, and the Elections Committee ruled against Lynch in this contest. As a result of a national compromise, in 1877 the federal government withdrew its troops from the South, and Reconstruction was considered ended. The Democrats had taken control of the state legislature.

In 1880 Lynch ran against the Democrat James R. Chalmers, and contested the Democrat's declaration of victory. Lynch fought for a year and was awarded the seat by Congress in 1882. The next election was close, leaving him little time to campaign. Lynch lost re-election in 1882 by 600 votes.

In 1884, Lynch became the first African American to chair a National Convention. Future President Theodore Roosevelt made a moving speech nominating Lynch as Temporary Chairman of the 1884 Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. Lynch served as a member of the Republican National Committee for Mississippi from 1884 to 1889.[5]

Marriage and family[edit]

In 1884, at the age of 37, Lynch married Ella Sommerville; they had a daughter before divorcing. Years later, in 1911, after Lynch retired from the Army, he married again, to Cora Williams. Part of the Great Migration to Northern industrial cities, they settled in Chicago, where they lived until his death in 1939.

Later political and military career[edit]

John R. Lynch, photo from his 1913 book

Lynch was appointed by the Republican national administration as Treasury Auditor of the Department of Navy (1889-1893).[5] He returned to Mississippi after this and studied law; he passed the state bar in 1896. As the state legislature had disfranchised blacks by its new 1890 constitution, based on poll taxes and literacy tests,[6] Lynch returned to Washington, DC the following year to set up his law practice.[5] He wanted to live where he could participate politically.

During the Spanish American War, Lynch was commissioned in 1898 as a major and appointed as paymaster in the Army by President William McKinley. In 1901, Lynch entered the Regular Army as a captain. He was promoted to major and served tours of duty in the United States, Cuba, and the Philippines.[5]

After Lynch retired from the Army in 1911, he married again and moved to Chicago in 1912. There he set up his law practice. He also became involved in real estate, as the city became a destination of tens of thousands of blacks in the Great Migration, including many from Mississippi, and was expanding rapidly. It also was a destination for waves of European immigrants drawn to its industrial jobs.

After his death in Chicago 1939 at the age of 92, Lynch was buried with military honors in Arlington National Cemetery, due his service as a Congressman and military officer.

Lynch's writings[edit]

At the turn of the 20th century, the struggle for memory and meaning over the Civil War and Reconstruction continued. Lynch wrote a book, The Facts of Reconstruction (1913), and several articles criticizing the then-dominant Dunning School of historiography. Dunning and followers, many of whom were prominent in major Southern universities, evaluated Reconstruction largely from the viewpoint of white former slave owners and ex-Confederates; they expressed the discriminatory views of their societies. They routinely downplayed any positive contributions of African Americans during Reconstruction, said they were dominated by white carpetbaggers, and could not manage political power. (This was in keeping with the disfranchisement of blacks throughout the former Confederacy from 1890 to 1910, and the imposition by state legislatures of racial segregation and Jim Crow law to restore white supremacy.)

Lynch argued that blacks had made substantial contributions during the period. He also published articles on this topic in 1917 and 1918 in the Journal of Negro History.[7] His views were later supported by historians such as W.E.B. Du Bois in his Black Reconstruction in America (1935) and Eric Foner in Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution, 1863-1877 (1988), among others. In the late 20th century, new histories changed the perception of Reconstruction.

The Facts of Reconstruction is freely available online,[8] courtesy of the Gutenberg Project. Since Lynch participated directly in Reconstruction-era governments, historians consider his book a primary source in study of the period.

Lynch's memoir, which he worked on near the end of his life, was first published posthumously in 1970. A number of chapters dealing with Reconstruction were essentially published first in his 1913 The Facts of Reconstruction. A new edition of his memoir was issued by the University of Mississippi Press in 2008. Much is available for preview at Google books.


  • The Late Election in Mississippi. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1877.
  • Colored Americans: John R. Lynch's Appeal To Them. Milwaukee: Allied Printing, [1900?]
  • The Facts of Reconstruction. New York: The Neale Publishing Company, 1913. Reprint, edited by William C. Harris, Indianapolis: Bobbs-Merrill Co., 1970.
  • The Facts of Reconstruction (New York, 1913), online[8]
  • Some Historical Errors of James Ford Rhodes. Boston: The Cornhill Publishing Co., 1922 (reprint of articles first published in the Journal of Negro History in 1917 and 1918).



See also[edit]


  1. ^ a b c d Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch, editor, John Hope Franklin (Chicago, 1970/University of Mississippi Press, 2008), pp. 1-10
  2. ^ a b Lawrence J. Kotlikoff and Anton J. Rupert, "The Manumission of Slaves in New Orleans, 1827-1846", Southern Studies, Summer 1980
  3. ^ Henry Lee Swint, The Northern Teacher in the South, 1862-1870, (Nashville: Vanderbilt University Press, 1941/reprint Octagon Books, 1967), pp. 122-123
  4. ^ Lynch (1970/2008), Reminiscences, pp. 42-43
  5. ^ a b c d e
  6. ^ Richard H. Pildes, "Democracy, Anti-Democracy, and the Canon", Constitutional Commentary, Vol.17, 2000, Accessed 10 Mar 2008
  7. ^ Sanders, Darsheikes. "Lynch, John Roy (1847-1939)", Black Past, accessed 7 April 2014
  8. ^ a b


  • Bell, Frank C. "The Life and Times of John R. Lynch: A Case Study 1847-1939", Journal of Mississippi History, 38 (February 1976): 53-67.
  • DeSantis, Vincent P.Republican Face the Southern Question: The New Departure Years, 1877-1897 (Baltimore, 1959)
  • Foner, Eric ed. "Lynch, John Roy" in Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction, Revised Edition. (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996). ISBN 0-8071-2082-0.
  • Franklin, John Hope. "Lynch, John Roy" in Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, pp. 407–9. New York: W. W. Norton and Co., 1982.
  • Franklin, John Hope editor, Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch (Chicago, 1970).
  • Franklin, John Hope. "John Roy Lynch: Republican Stalwart from Mississippi" in Howard Rabinowitz, (ed.), Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era (Urbana, 1982); reprinted in John Hope Franklin, Race and History: Selected Essays, 1938-1988 (Louisiana State University Press, 1989)
  • "John Roy Lynch" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1989. Prepared under the direction of the Commission on the Bicentenary by the Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 1991.
  • McLaughlin, James Harold. John R. Lynch, The Reconstruction Politician: A Historical Perspective. Ph.D. diss., Ball State University, 1981.
  • Mann, Kenneth Eugene. "John Roy Lynch: U.S. Congressman from Mississippi", Negro History Bulletin, 37 (April/May 1974): 238-41.
  • Schweninger, Loren. Black Property Owners in the South 1790-1915 (Urbana, Ill., 1990)
  • The Amazing World of John Roy Lynch (Eerdmans Publishing, 2015), a biography for children, written by Chris Barton and illustrated by Don Tate.

External links[edit]

United States House of Representatives
Preceded by
District created
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 6th congressional district

March 4, 1873 – March 3, 1877
Succeeded by
James R. Chalmers
Preceded by
James R. Chalmers
Member of the U.S. House of Representatives
from Mississippi's 6th congressional district

April 29, 1882 – March 3, 1883
Succeeded by
Henry Smith Van Eaton