John Roy Lynch wasn’t just the only Black man to represent Mississippi in Congress for more than a century. He was a veteran who rose to major in the Army, a lawyer, a successful businessman and an author. And this is a guy who started life as a slave.
Lynch was born on the Tacony Plantation in Vidalia, Louisiana, in 1847. His father, an Irish immigrant named Patrick Lynch, worked as an overseer on the plantation. His mother, Catherine White, was a mixed-race slave. She was Patrick’s common law wife, interracial marriage being illegal at the time. Patrick tried to keep the family together and had a plan to buy Catherine, John and his two brothers and free them, but he died before achieving that goal. After his death, the family was sold to Arthur Vidal Davis, a Natchez, Miss., planter. Davis agreed to keep the family together, Catherine worked in the household, John in the fields. They were liberated in 1863 after the Emancipation Proclamation. John was 16 at the time.
Lynch would go on to serve three terms in Congress. He was elected from a coastal Mississippi district that included Natchez. At the time of his first election in 1873, the district was 55% Black. Along the way in his political career Lynch achieved a number of firsts. He was elected to the state house of representatives in 1869 and in 1872 he was chosen to be speaker of the house, the first Black man to hold that position in any state. He was 25 at the time. When he took his seat in the 43rd Congress in 1873 he was, at 26, the youngest member of the House. Several years later, in 1884, he was a delegate to the Republican National Convention and delivered a keynote address, the first African-American to do so.
As a legislator, Lynch focused mostly on economic issues aimed at helping his constituents. He sought funding for an orphanage damaged during the Civil War, he sponsored legislation seeking reimbursement for depositors who lost money due to the failure of the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company and sought funding to improve the Mississippi River shoreline. He was a member of the Committee on Mines and the Committee on Expenditures.
He also was an avid supporter of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 which prohibited discrimination in public places, including public transportation and restrooms. Following is an excerpt from a speech Lynch made on the House floor supporting that legislation:
“I am treated, not as an American citizen, but as a brute. Forced to occupy a filthy smoking-car both night and day, with drunkards, gamblers, and criminals; and for what? Not that I am unable or unwilling to pay my way; not that I am obnoxious in my personal appearance or disrespectful in my conduct; but simply because I happen to be of a darker complexion… Mr. Speaker, if this unjust discrimination is to be longer tolerated by the American people, which I do not, cannot, and will not believe until I am forced to do so, then I can only say with sorrow and regret that our boasted civilization is a fraud; our republican institutions a failure; our social system a disgrace; and our religion a complete hypocrisy.”
Lynch’s military service started right after he was emancipated. During the civil war he served as a cook for the 49th Illinois Volunteer regiment. Thirty some years later, during the Spanish-American War, he was commissioned a major in the Army and appointed paymaster by President McKinley. He served in both Cuba and the Philippines.
In between his stints in Congress and his military gigs, Lynch at one time ran a successful photography business. He was admitted to the bar in Mississippi and practiced law.
Later in life, this man who at one time had sought to further his education by eavesdropping near a open window at the white school in Natchez, turned to writing. His most notable work was The Facts of Reconstruction, published in 1913. It was written in response to some works by white historians that negatively portrayed the role of the Black Republicans after the Civil War. He was a contributor to the Journal of Negro History and when he died he was working on his autobiography. Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch was eventually published in 1970. A new edition was published by the University of Mississippi Press in 2007.
In 1974 a street in Jackson, Miss., was named after Lynch. On that occasion (May 3, 1974) the Jackson Clarion Ledger had this to say: “Lynch was elected to the legislature at the youthful age of 22, and was elected speaker at 25. In 1873, his colleagues presented him with a gold watch and chain. A prominent white Democrat proposed a resolution thanking Lynch for his ‘dignity, impartiality, and courtesy.’ In 1880, the Jackson Clarion referred to him as, ‘the ablest man of his race in the South.’”
From Slavery to Capitol Hill posts: