“A kinder country would have embraced him as everything America dreams of. A survivor of the physical and spiritual torture of the nation’s gravest sin, Haralson had the bravery to defy his former tormentors, teaching himself how to read and write and using his natural gifts to go from chattel slavery to the halls of Congress in a little over a decade. Haralson completed his term in Congress a month before his 31st birthday.”
Those are the words of Bryan Lyman writing in the Montgomery Advertiser on Feb. 26, 2020 (The Lost Congressman: Whatever Happened to Jeremiah Haralson?).
Jeremiah Haralson was born into slavery near Columbus, Ga., in 1846. No one knows for sure where he died or when. In between, he was Alabama’s first Black man elected to the state House of Representatives and one of the first black Congressmen who took their seats on Capitol Hill during Reconstruction.
Haralson was his own man. He at times supported Democrats as well as Republicans. And he was not afraid to take unpopular stances, like supporting a bill to grant amnesty to Confederates.
Haralson started life as a slave in Georgia. After his owner died he was sold at least twice. Little is known of his parents or at what point he was separated from his family. In 1859, he was sold to a Selma, Ala., lawyer named John Haralson. He was emancipated in 1865 after the Civil War and the 13th Amendment abolishing slavery.
As a free man, Haralson taught himself to read and write. His entry into politics was a result of his skill as an orator. He is first seen in politics in 1868, campaigning for Horatio Seymour, the Democratic presidential candidate who ran against Ulysses S. Grant. The unusual choice for a Black man to support the party of former slaveholders and Confederates was explained by Haralson as a result of loyalty to his former owner. He later disavowed the sincerity of his support for Seymour, saying he had simply been paid to write speeches and that in private he urged people to vote for Grant.
In 1870, when Haralson successfully ran for a seat on the state House of Representatives, he was a Republican. Two years later, he was elected to the Alabama Senate. It is in that position that he achieved his greatest success as a legislator. He pushed through the passage of a bill requiring equal funding of schools and was also sponsor of a civil rights bill that required transportation and hospitality services to provide equal accommodations.
In 1874 Haralson ran for the U.S. House of Representatives in a district that was 50 percent Black. In that election, he defeated Frederick Bromberg, the Liberal Republican incumbent. Haralson had 54 percent of the vote. Despite his skills as an orator, Haralson never made a speech on the house floor. It was during this lone two-year term that he controversially voted in favor of an amnesty bill for Confederates. His explanation: ““The colored man in the South wants peace and good will to all and hatred to none, and asks for others what he desires for himself — an equal chance in the race of life. We, as a race, cannot afford to aid in any manner in keeping up strife for the benefit of office-hunters.”
Haralson failed in two attempts to be re-elected, a result of divisions within the Republican Party and the growing efforts of white southern Democrats that would eventually disenfranchise Blacks in Alabama and elsewhere in the South. In 1876 he lost a three-way contest with former Black Representative James Rapier and the Selma sheriff, Democrat and former Confederate Charles M. Shelley. With Haralson and Rapier splitting the black vote, Shelley was able to win with 38 percent of the vote. Numerous irregularities were reported but Haralson’s mostly illiterate poll watchers were intimidated and powerless.
After Haralson left office in 1877, there would not be another Black Alabaman in the House of Representatives until 1992.
Following his electoral defeats, Haralson moved to Washington where he got some patronage jobs from the Grant administration. In 1894, he was in Arkansas working as a pension agent when he was arrested and charged with pension fraud. The jury deliberated for 15 minutes and the judge threw the book at him, two years, maximum sentence. The last public record of Haralson is of him entering Albany (N.Y.) County Penitentiary in 1895.
Haralson’s official Congressional biography states that he eventually moved West, landing in Colorado where he worked as a coal miner and was killed by a wild animal while hunting. There is no death certificate, no known grave and nothing to corroborate that story.
Lyman concludes, “Haralson faded like a half-remembered dream. The nation forgot, as it forgot the pain and triumph of so many African-Americans.”
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