Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During
Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture. New York and Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1993. xlv + 290 pp. Illustrated. $75.00 (cloth), ISBN
Christopher Waldrep, Eastern Illinois University.
is a wonderful book.
professor Eric Foner, author of Free Soil, Free Labor, Free Men,
Tom Paine and Revolutionary America, Nothing But Freedom:
Emancipation and Its Legacy, and Reconstruction: America's Unfinished
Revolution, has produced a reference book every university library in America
will want to own.
2,000 African Americans who served in federal, state, and local offices,
Foner has found 1,465 for this book. Many of these men are difficult to pin
down, emerging from obscurity to take office for one term and then retiring
to anonymity. Compiling biographical information about such obscurities
requires herculean research in unindexed manuscript censuses, military
pensions records, and business records. As Foner points out in his excellent
introduction, until the 1960s historians did not even attempt such research,
condemning black lawmakers as subhuman without research. Aside from
deplorable racism, often these early historians simply did not get their
facts right. Scholars claimed most black delegates to the Georgia
constitutional convention were illiterate when, in fact, twenty-two of
thirty-seven could read and write. Historians simply did not do the basic
research--probably because they saw no need. They "knew" all they needed to
know about black lawmakers: because they were black and some had been
ex-slaves, they must have been ignorant, corrupt, and incompetent.
since the 1960s many historians have begun to collect information on such
topics as black policemen in New Orleans, blacks in the Louisiana
legislature, Charleston's African- American politicians, and black
Reconstuctionists in Tennessee, but no one has published a prosopographic
study covering the entire South. Foner builds on the work of scholars like
Thomas Holt and Charles Vincent but adds original material and an
introduction designed to lionize these "forgotten protagonists."
Foner concedes in his introduction, he was not able to find information on
every black officeholder and some of what he did find is not entirely
complete or even accurate. For example, his entry describing the famous
black Mississippi sheriff Peter Crosby gives his birth and death dates,
tells of his army service, but most of the entry merely rehashes the 1874
riot. This actually contributes little to what is already known about
Crosby as a person, the
point of the book. Accounts of the 1874 riot already exist in many sources,
including Foner's own Reconstruction.
does not consistently use the sources available to him, admittedly a tall
order when looking for 2,000 virtual unknowns in often unindexed source
material. Although he consulted the census for many entrants, Foner skipped
it for Crosby, relying instead on William C. Harris's Day of the
Carpetbagger, Congressional reports on the Vicksburg riot, and Crosby's
military pension file. Although Foner gives Crosby's birth date as 1846, the
1880 census and one of the Congressional reports Foner uses list it as 1843.
Inconsistent use of the 1870 census leads Foner to conclude that George
Boyd's dates are unknown, when, according to the 1870 census, he was born in
1821 and had $2,000 in property. Omissions of basic factual information make
the tables in the introduction a bit dubious.
Sometimes Foner's information on the offices these men held is just as
incomplete. Freedom's Lawmakers says Crosby served as Warren County
treasurer in 1873 when actually he began serving in that post in 1872. This
is an important point since some historians have suggested that
was not dishonest--yet he served as treasurer during the notorious
Furlong regime (1867-1873). And Foner never mentions Crosby's earlier
service as coroner and ranger. He claims Crosby was part of the black group
that seized power in Warren County in 1872 but that takeover actually
occurred in 1873. Had he consulted the 1880 census he would have found
Crosby with his wife and two sons living at Brunswick Landing in Warren
County as a farmer.
also be that more typographical errors exist in this book than in
Reconstruction. After all, it must be painfully tedious to proofread a
biographical dictionary. Thus, Janet Sharp Hermann's The Pursuit of a
Dream is fully cited repeatedly but Buford Satcher's Blacks in
Mississippi Politics, 1865-1900 is just as often cited only as Satcher,
Mississippi and left out of the bibliography altogether. And the
publication date for Leading Afro-Americans of Vicksburg is 1908 is
one entry (p. 26) and 1980 in another (p.206).
quibbles are just that, quibbles. This is a marvelous book that beckons
further research. The fact that this book is incomplete makes it more
exciting, not less. Still more work needs to be done--a fact not altogether
clear to readers of the encyclopedic, exhaustive, and (as my students
insist!) exhausting Reconstruction. Much can be learned about
Reconstruction simply by paging through the fascinating entries in
Freedom's Lawmakers at random.
Foner notes in his introduction, Reconstruction was an unprecedented
experiment in interracial democracy. Foner's directory of the participants
in that experiment is a tool every historian of Reconstruction will want to
have--and will have to have. Foner has run down obscure people in census
records, military pension files, Harvard's Dun and Company credit rating
ledgers, colleagues' notes, and unpublished dissertations.
main objection has nothing to do with Foner's editing, proofreading, or
inconsistent use of his sources, it is the price. Oxford University Press is
charging $75.00 for this 200-page book. Obviously, this is intended for
libraries only and reference collections at that. The price is outrageous,
but it must be paid, for this book is indispensable to any student of the
Call Number: E185.96 .F64 1993
United States--Officials and employees--Biography--Dictionaries.
Citation: Christopher Waldrep. "Review of Eric Foner, Freedom's Lawmakers: A
Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction," H-Law, H-Net
Reviews, August, 1993. URL:
“Eric Foner has assembled a storehouse of information,
much of it quite fugitive, about the almost 1,500 blacks who held political
office in the South during the era of Reconstruction…Every Southern
historian who teaches about Reconstruction should at least read the
introductory essay, and every college library should purchase the book.”
Review of Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black
Officeholders During Reconstruction, by Eric Foner, The Journal of
Southern History 59 (August 1993): 599-600.