September 10, 1847:
On this day John R. Lynch was born.
John Roy Lynch was an American politician, writer, attorney, and military officer, who was born into slavery, gained freedom in 1863 and was subsequently elected to both the Mississippi House of Representatives and the U.S. House of Representatives.
John Roy Lynch, congressman, soldier, and author was born in Concordia Parish, Louisiana on September 10, 1847 to Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant and Catherine White, a slave. Lynch’s father died soon after his birth. Lynch and his mother were then traded to a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. During the Civil War, Lynch became free when he fled the plantation to serve as a cook for the 49th Illinois Volunteer Regiment.
During Reconstruction, Lynch joined the Republican Party in Mississippi. After working as assistant secretary for the Republican State Convention, Lynch became the Justice of the Peace in Natchez County, Mississippi. In November 1869 at the age of 22, Lynch was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. Three years later, in 1872 he was named Speaker of the House.
Lynch became known within the community for his leadership abilities and, by the age of 20, became increasingly active within the Republican Party. Although he was far too young to participate as a delegate, he was able to attend the 1867 Constitutional Convention purely in a spectator role. Two years later, he was appointed as Justice of the Peace by the then-military governor, Adelbert Ames, and soon after was elected to the Mississippi State House of Representatives. At only 24 years old he was chosen as speaker, becoming the first African-American to hold that position in the State. He held that position until 1873.
During his last term in the state House at the age of 26, Lynch was elected to Congress from Mississippi’s 6th congressional district becoming the House of Representatives youngest member. While there, he introduced many bills and argued on behalf of the rights of African-Americans. He is arguably best known for his involvement in and support of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, also known as the Enforcement Act, which prohibited discrimination in public accommodations and on public transportation and also protected the right to serve on juries. Lynch, alongside six other African-American congressmen, testified about his knowledge and personal experience of discrimination occurring in the Mississippi area. The act passed the Congress and was signed into law on March 1, 1975; unfortunately, eight years later a Supreme Court decision found it unconstitutional and hollowed out the provisions, paving the way for the policy of “separate but equal.”
In 1884, Lynch became the first African-American to chair a National Convention after future president Theodore Roosevelt made Lynch the Temporary Chairman of the Republican National Convention in Chicago, Illinois. He also delivered a keynote address during the conference, the only African-American to do so until 1968.
In 1897 Lynch passed the Mississippi Bar and opened a law office in Washington, D.C. In 1898 President William McKinley appointed Lynch a major in the U.S. Army and paymaster of volunteers during the Spanish-American War. After divorcing his wife in 1900, Lynch served in Cuba for three years and then later in Philippines, Hawaii, and San Francisco (California). He retired from active duty in 1911, returning home to Natchez where he married Cora Williamson. The couple relocated to Chicago.
Although Lynch periodically practiced law in Chicago, he was increasingly concerned about the negative and inaccurate portrayal of blacks in Reconstruction being generated by white scholars. He became an author and historian to set the record straight. Lynch wrote The Facts of Reconstruction in 1913. He followed his book with articles in the Journal of Negro History in 1917 and 1918. In 1922, he began writing Reminiscence of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John R. Lynch. While editing his autobiography, John R. Lynch, the last surviving black congressman of the Reconstruction era, died in Chicago on November 2, 1939 at the age of 92. His book was published posthumously in 1970.
John R. Lynch’s career is truly inspiring: from political battles to military service to works of scholarship that stand as a testament to the African-American experience at the turn of the century. His foray into the political realm at a young age, followed by his incredible rise to top government positions as a black man, set an inspirational precedent for all future generations of Americans.