Copyright © Janice Tracy, Cemeteries of Dancing Rabbit Creek.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

The Pinchback Family - Their Fight for Equality

The grave of William Pinchback is one of the oldest graves in Holmes County, located in Pinchback Cemetery on the top of a hill that was once the location of a plantation that bore the name of the man buried there. William Pinchback was born on April 12 1788, "a native of North Carolina," according to the inscription on the stone marking his grave. The piece of marble that is his gravestone shows his date of death was October 2, 1848.

Although events in William Pinchback's life itself are not well-documented, much has been written about the life of one of his sons, Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback. And it is from the writings about the life of P.B.S. Pinchback, as he has been called, that portions of his father's life story have been revealed.

William Pinchback, born in North Carolina
on April 12, 1788; died on October 2, 1848

Major William Pinchback, a white man from North Carolina, fathered five children with Eliza Stewart, a slave of mixed African, Caucasian, and Indian blood, commonly known in those days as "mulatto." Before Pinchback left North Carolina, he had freed Eliza from slavery. On their way from Halifax County, North Carolina, to Mississippi, Eliza Stewart gave birth to Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback on May 10, 1837, in Macon (Bibb County) Georgia .

Once he and Eliza and their children arrived in Mississippi, Major Pinchback established his plantation in Holmes County, a county formed out of Yazoo County and known as "the land between two rivers." Much to the dismay of some of their neighbors in Holmes County, Major Pinchback and Eliza lived together openly and raised their children as a family.

When Pinkney was nine years old, he and his brother were sent to Cincinnati, Ohio to attend a private school, Gilmore High School, that accepted blacks and mulattos. After the two brothers had been in school for only a short time, they were required to return to Pinchback Plantation, where their father lay dying.

Although Major Pinchback was terminally ill, he had the insight to know his death would create turmoil among his eastern white relatives, since they had always looked with disdain upon his relationship with Eliza Stewart. He was particularly concerned that his relatives might attempt to enslave Eliza and his children once he was dead. According to a document filed in early Holmes County records, Major Pinchback sold Eliza and their five children for $100 to two individuals whom he trusted. These individuals then assisted Eliza and her children in a successful escape to Cincinnati, Ohio, a city that would later become an important link in the Underground Railway in the United States.

Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback,
Son of William Pinchback and Eliza Stewart
Born in Macon, Georgia on May 10, 1837
Died in Washington, D.C. on Sept. 21, 1921
Buried in Metairie Cemetery
Metairie, Louisiana

Once the family arrived in Cincinnati, 12-year old Pinkney was faced with supporting his mother and siblings. Initially, he signed on as a cabin boy on canal boats at a salary of eight dollars per month. After a few years, he moved on to working as a personal servant for white gamblers who played high stakes games with riverboat customers. It was during these years that Pinkney became somewhat of a gambler himself, as well as a womanizer of sorts. By all accounts, his life was not only colorful but somewhat dangerous. Allegedly, before 1860, he had already served at least two years in prison as a result of an argument and a stabbing incident that reportedly involved a woman.

In 1860 in Indiana, where he was working as a hotel porter and barber, Pinkney met Nina Emily Hawthorne. When he was 23 years old, and she was only 16, Pinkney and Nina were married. From that point on, Pinkney's adventuresome and often dangerous life among riverboat gamblers and other colorful figures of the time, became a thing of the past. During the early years of their marriage, Pinkney and Nina lived in Cincinnati where Pinkney attempted to recruit black cavalry officers for the Civil War and where he met opposition from his superiors because of his own racial ethnicity.

In 1867, amidst political changes of Reconstruction, P.B.S. Pinchback moved with his wife to the Fourth Ward of New Orleans, Louisiana. It was there that he began life as a changed man, a man set on a course that would involve his becoming one of the first non-white politicians in the State of Louisiana. Not only did he serve as a member of the Louisiana Constitutional Convention, but in 1867, he helped organize the Republican Party in the state. His organizational base for the Republican party was near his home in the Fourth Ward. In 1868, he was elected to the Louisiana State Senate. It was during Pinkney's term in the senate that he introduced a bill, which later passed, that allowed marriages between whites and persons of color, a legal commitment that his own parents were prevented by law from ever doing.

In 1869, Pinchback opened a steamship and cotton company, and in 1870, he became the sole owner of a weekly newspaper,
the "Louisianian." He continued to publish the newspaper until 1881, where he used the power of the press to push for civil rights for non-whites in the State of Louisiana. In 1871, he was named Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana and subsequently became the 25th Governor of Louisiana, serving from December 9, 1872 until January 13, 1873.

The day after Pinchback's term as governor ended, the legislature elected him to serve as a U.S. Senator. Even though he was elected to the Senate, congressional arguments persisted about the legitimacy of the state government that had elected him. After about two years, the House voted on March 3, 1875 to deny Pinchback his seat in the U. S. Senate by a vote of 121 to 29. He continued in his attempt to be seated, but arguments by his political opponents continued, and on March 8, 1876, Pinchback lost his Senate seat by a vote of 32-29. With his political career believed to be over, he returned to New Orleans where he was appointed Customs Surveyor for the city.

According to the U. S. Census of 1870, Pinkney and Nina Pinchback were living in the Fourth Ward of New Orleans with four children. Pinkney's occupation was "cotton broker." When the U. S. Census was taken in 1880, the Pinchback family was still living in the Fourth Ward, and the household included Pinkney, Nina and their six children, two sons and four daughters. Also living in the same household was Pinkney's mother, Eliza Stewart, then 55 years old, and two female servants. All members of the household, including the two servants, were shown on the census as "mulatto." If the census information is correct, Eliza was 12-13 years old when she gave birth to her first child with William Pinchback.

In 1885, at the age of 58, Pinkney Benton Stewart Pinchback enrolled at Straight University, a Louisiana institution organized for the education of people of color. In 1890, he earned a law degree and was admitted to the Louisiana Bar the next year. With a law degree in hand and still very much interested in politics and racial equality, P.B.S. Pinchback was elected chairman of the American Citizens' Equal Rights Association. The organization was located in Washington, D.C., so Pinchback moved his family there to work with the association in its efforts to preserve the equality of all citizens. He remained in Washington, where he continued to practice law until his death on December 21, 1921.

Shortly after his death, the body of P.B.S. Pinchback, son of William Pinchback, Holmes County, Mississippi pioneer, and Eliza Stewart, a former slave, was returned to Louisiana. His body is interred in Metairie Cemetery, less than ten miles from the Fourth Ward of New Orleans where his fight for racial equality had begun.


  1. Janice, Thank you for presenting this well-written and sensitive look at one of Holmes County's early pioneering family --- and for the lessons this family's story teaches.

    Terry Thornton

  2. I really enjoyed reading about the Pinchback family, Janice. You did a great job on this one, as usual.