The Path Not Taken: Congressman John Roy Lynch

ImageIn September 1847 John Roy Lynch was born on Tacony Plantation, to Catherine White, a native of Virginia, and Patrick Lynch, a native of Dublin, Ireland. Patrick and Catherine had met when he came from Ohio, where his family had emigrated, for Catherine’s “master.” Catherine was an enslaved woman working on the plantation. Though Pat and Catherine had married, the marriage was not legal ,and both she, and their son John Roy, remained under the “ownership” of the planter. Pat Lynch immediately set about the only option available to him, to purchase his wife and child. The owner agreed and the Irishman left for New Orleans to raise the funds. Unfortunately, he died before executing the contract and left the process and money already collected in the care of a good friend. Akin to the Solomon Northrup of 12 Years a Slave, however, Catherine and John Roy were betrayed and remained in slavery. John Roy was eventually separated from his mother and did get the freedom due him when he left the plantation for the Union lines in occupied Natchez, across the Mississippi River in 1863.

Picking up some odd jobs from the Union army, Lynch got his break when “through an intimate friend of my father,” Patrick H. McGraw, he earned a position in a city photography business. McGraw, a native of Co. Down, local pharmacist, and a lay leader of the Catholic Church in the city, [and reputedly a Confederate smuggler] secured Lynch the job from a firm which operated in his building in downtown Natchez. Starting as a messenger but then qualifying as an apprentice the job gave Lynch the status and time to hone his political skills as he soon rose to managing the business for the proprietor.  The financial independence gained from a white collar occupation brought him into politics and he soon earned a reputation as a good speaker and at the age of 21 was appointed by Republican authorities as a Justice of the Peace.  From there he was elected, with major support from recently enfranchised freedmen, to the Mississippi State Legislature, taking part in the Constitutional convention which endorsed the 14th Amendment, promising “equal protection of the laws” to all citizens. Lynch impressed so much that he became the first black speaker of the Mississippi House and then the Republican congressional candidate for the 4th Congressional District, which included Natchez.  Elected in 1873 as Mississippi’s first black congressman at the age of 26. Lynch became a strong advocate for legislation to build on the guarantees in the 14th Amendment.  In the violent and corrupt election of 1876, however, Lynch was denied his seat, even though if the election had been fair, he would have been easily re-elected. Remarkably he managed to fight off Democrat opposition and regained the seat in another disputed election in1880 only relinquishing it at the next election.    

Effectively out of representative politics he turned instead to the law and passed the Mississippi Bar in 1896 just as Jim Crow and disfranchisement of African Americans in the state became enshrined. He found it difficult to make a living and left for the north. Remaining a loyal Republican he endorsed the Spanish American War, volunteering and serving in Cuba and the Philippines. His fame from this effort gave him the connections to find a publisher for his book The Facts of Reconstruction which vigorously defended the record of Radical Republicans and African Americans in the attempt to fulfil the equality promised of the Declaration of Independence. Settling in Chicago, Lynch lived until 1939 and, as was his right as a former congressman and veteran of the Spanish American War, he was buried in Arlington National Cemetery.

Lynch always acknowledged, as he described it, his “Irish descent,”  even while noting that the Irish took the wrong side in Reconstruction. In one visit to St. Louis, Missouri, for example, he was warned that the wait staff in a hotel would not like him because they were Irish and he was black. He assured the owner that as he was of Irish extraction himself that he could handle the situation, and indeed he did, getting on well with the immigrants. Despite Lynch’s Irishness, the hotel owner was right to be nervous about Irish reaction to black clients. Though some were attracted to the Republican vision for a truly “new South,” most turned away from it endorsing instead the white supremacy of the Democrats. Irishmen were often at the centre of racial incidents such as the Memphis riot of 1866 when Irish policemen attacked black homes and institutions. Many of these African Americans had escaped from slavery in the cotton fields of the Mississippi Delta, only to face the wrath of Irish Americans. Even though he wrote a detailed memoir in the last year of his life, John Roy Lynch does not have an official historic marker in Mississippi. Perhaps, then, an Irish American effort to help organize one would be an appropriate gesture to acknowledge the Irishness of the state’s first black congressman, but also the path not taken by most of his fellow Irish Americans.