John Adams Hyman was the first Black to represent North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. But perhaps the most impressive part of Hyman’s career is what he went through to educate himself.
Hyman was born into slavery in Warrenton, N.C., in 1840. At the time, nothing struck fear in the hearts of Southern slaveholders more than the prospect of an educated slave. While it was illegal throughout the southern states to educate slaves, Hyman took it upon himself to learn to read and write. He got a little help from a jeweler named King for whom he was working as a janitor. King, being from Pennsylvania, wasn’t quite up to the repressive ways of the South, and helped Hyman out, including giving him a spelling book. When that was discovered, Hyman’s owner was forced to sell him to a slaveholder in Alabama.
That set off a continuing chain whereby Hyman, largely because of his continuing efforts to learn to read and write, was sold at least eight times during his 25 years of slavery. When emancipation came in 1865, Hyman headed back to Warrenton and enrolled in a school where he got an elementary education.
Now freed and literate, it didn’t take long for Hyman to get involved in politics. In 1867, he was a delegate at the Republican State Convention and later that year was elected to the Warren County delegation to the North Carolina Constitutional Convention. In 1868, he was elected to the North Carolina Senate, where he would serve for six years.
In 1872, Hyman ran an unsuccessful campaign to win the Republican nomination for a seat in the House of Representatives in the second district. He lost out to the incumbent Clarence Thomas. The district that included Hyman’s hometown of Warrenton was known as the “Black Second.” The state Democrats had gerrymandered the legislative map for the state in order to concentrate a large proportion of the black vote in the second district, thus rendering neighboring districts safely Democratic, and white. Hyman tried again in 1874 and this time he prevailed on the 29th ballot at the nominating convention. In the election, he defeated the Democratic candidate, George W. Blount, winning 62 percent of the vote.
Hyman’s term in the legislature was undistinguished. The Pittsburgh Courier, a weekly African-American newspaper, had this description of Hyman’s experience in Congress (May 14, 1949): “The Forty-fourth Congress was Democratic, and Hyman received only an obscure appointment on the Manufactures Committee. He submitted several measures that were of importance to the state as a whole, including one to provide a new courthouse for Jones County in place of the one destroyed by Union troops, and a bill to erect a lighthouse on Pimlico Sound. Like many other colored Congressmen, Hyman was interested in the lot of the Indians, and he introduced a measure to provide relief for the Western Cherokees. So biased was the political complexion of the House that none of these proposals even came to a vote.”
By 1876, whites had taken control of the state Republican Party and Hyman lost out on the nomination to run for re-election to a former state Reconstruction Governor Curtis Brogden.
Throughout his political career, Hyman was hounded by insinuations of corruption. It started while he was a member of the state senate, what was apparently a pretty corrupt place. There was talk he was involved in some payoffs involving the location of a penitentiary, that he took money from lobbyists during what would become a railroad bond scandal and that he accepted payment in return for endorsing a congressional candidate. Hyman was never formally charged with any of these irregularities. But the hints of corruption were used by his political opponents.
The Southern Home, a short-lived Democratic newspaper based in Charlotte, published this piece of invective on Aug. 14, 1876: “John Adams Hyman, a negro congressman from fhe 2nd District of North Carolina has developed a desire to get possession of other people’s wealth without rendering an equivalent therefor. He will retire from Congress and become a candidate for the North Carolina penitentiary.”
Not long after, he was expelled from the Warrenton Colored Methodist Church, where he was a steward and Sunday school superintendent, as a result of charges that he embezzled Sunday school funds.
He attempted again in 1878 and then again in 1888 to gain the Republican nomination for the Congressional seat, but was defeated. The following year he moved north to Washington, D.C., where he got a job with the Department of Agriculture. He passed away in 1891 after suffering from a stroke in his home.
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