"The Idol of the Negroes"
By H. Scott Wolfe
It was a warm November day when we entered Greenwood Cemetery—a historic, rather unkempt, burial ground near the State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Newspaper photograph in hand, I knew that the monument would be quite distinctive. And it was only moments before I spotted it—an elaborately carved shaft of marble, shaded by a large tree, and backed with a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. I could see inscribed at its base, in bold block letters: LYNCH. Higher, within a delicate ribbon, were the words : TRUE TO THE PUBLIC TRUST. And above that a surprisingly detailed image of the man I sought—a black man carved in white stone—James D. Lynch—minister, editor, and politician. And once a citizen of Galena, Illinois.
Galena's African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was located at the corner of Warren and Locust streets, just west of the "Ramus Lot", a Prospect Street property owned by black grocer John Ramus (and later the site of the "old" High School). The church was built in 1844, and until the 1870s it functioned as the spiritual, social, and political center of Galena's thriving African American community. A series of pastors served the congregation, and one, the Reverend James Lynch, arrived in Galena on the eve of the Civil War. An educated man, with a great gift of oratory, the young minister settled nearby—and began to court Lugenia Rice, who with her family resided in the household of Garret Johnson, a church trustee. On September 1st, 1862, the couple were married in Galena. And shortly thereafter departed on a grand adventure. Lynch had been born in Baltimore in 1839, his father a freeborn merchant/minister—his mother a slave. Educated first at an elementary school conducted by the Rev. Daniel Payne of the AME church, the young man was sent to Meriden, New Hampshire, where he attended the Kimball Union Academy—one of the few Northern schools accepting Negro students prior to 1860. "Pecuniary disability" limited his studies to two years, and he eventually moved on to Indianapolis, where he committed to the ministry and was assigned to preach at a small church in the bustling river town of Galena.
Lynch's mentor, the Rev. Payne, had now become a Bishop of the AME church, and, following the young preacher's tenure in Illinois, brought him east—where he honed his speaking and literary talents and continued his studies toward his ordination. But the Civil War raged—and increasing numbers of Southern blacks sought refuge and freedom within Union lines. The care of these suffering masses became a pressing need.
Responding to a call issued by Bishop Payne, Lynch joined other missionaries in South Carolina. He first preached to the freedmen at Hilton Head, and he later wrote: "My heart was so full I felt it was overflowing, and there was no trouble for tears and words to run."
For two years Lynch helped establish churches in South Carolina and Georgia, created schools for black children, and served as an army chaplain for several colored regiments (including the famous Massachusetts 54th). He "traveled incessantly, preached baptized, chastised, and reconciled…" It was in Savannah, Georgia that Lynch participated in a celebrated meeting of twenty Negro leaders with Secretary of War Edwin Stanton and General William T. Sherman, in which he delivered an outspoken call for racial integration. His strenuous efforts to succor the downtrodden led one black minister to observe: "The Rev. James Lynch has done more for the elevation of the colored people in this department than any other man."
After the war, Rev. Lynch moved his family to Philadelphia, where he assumed the editorship of the Christian Recorder, the principle organ of the AME church. Under his regime, the paper took on a spirited, issue-oriented character. But after a year, he succumbed once more to the desire to assist his newly liberated brethren—this time in Mississippi—as a missionary of the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church, North. "I have convictions of duty to my race as deep as my soul," he wrote.
Lynch traveled to Mississippi "as a religious and moral educator". The recognized leader of the Northern Methodist missionary effort there, within a year of his arrival the church had gained six thousand black members and had constructed twenty meeting houses. His oratorical skills were reaching their zenith, many referring to him as "the Henry Ward Beecher of his race". One witness described his charismatic effect on the hordes of freedman who flocked to hear him.
"He was a remarkable man…of medium height, broad shouldered, with a superb head and sparkling brown eyes; his hair was black and glossy and stood in profusion on his head…He was a great orator; fluent and graceful, he stirred his audience as no other man did or could do. He was the idol of the Negroes, who would come from every point of the compass to hear him speak. He rarely spoke to less than a thousand and often two to five thousand. He swayed them with as much ease as a man would sway a peacock feather…They yelled and howled, and laughed, and cried, as he willed. I have heard him paint the horrors of slavery…in pathetic tones of sympathy till the tears would roll down his cheeks, and every Negro in the audience would be weeping; then wiping briskly away his tears, he would break forth into hosannas for the blessings of emancipation, and every Negro in the audience would break forth in the wildest shouts…Imagine one or two thousand Negroes standing en masse in a semi-circle facing the speaker, whose tones were as clear and resonant as a silver bell…"
Almost from the day he had arrived in the South, Lynch recognized that the political rights of the freedmen were just as essential as their religious instruction. With others, he set to work organizing the Republican Party in Mississippi. The first state party convention, held in Jackson in September of 1867, rewarded Lynch for his services by electing him Vice-President of the organization. He also worked diligently toward creating a new constitution for the state, taking a moderate stance in which he opposed the punishment of former Confederates through the denial of their voting rights. He stood for "moderate Republicanism" and "universal amnesty and universal suffrage". To this end, he established a publication, the Colored Citizen Monthly, to convince the freedmen to follow this less radical philosophy.
By 1869 James Lynch was undeniably the foremost African American politician in Mississippi. The Republican nominating convention recognized this, choosing him for the office of Secretary of State. After a grueling campaign, the Rev. Lynch was elected, becoming the first such black official in the State of Mississippi. He was considered a responsible, and responsive, public official, and during his term paid particular attention to the issues of land policy, education, and the economic improvement of the freedmen. Shortly after taking office, Secretary Lynch wrote a letter to Galena, inviting his old friend Garret Johnson to come to Mississippi to labor among the freedmen. Johnson accepted, and began "preaching to the colored people….and teaching their youths". In 1874 he edited a newspaper in Jackson, the Field Hand, and founded a "Laboring Man's Association", of which he served as president. Galena was well represented in postwar Mississippi.
Lynch was re-elected Secretary of State in 1871, and, in the following year, served as a delegate to the National Republican Convention. Although denied his wish of obtaining his party's nomination for Congress, he afterward campaigned in Indiana for his one-time townsmen U.S. Grant, where he "met with a perfect stunning ovation throughout [the] State wherever he addressed our citizens".
Returning to Mississippi in late 1872, Lynch was suddenly stricken with kidney disease, and died on December 18th, at the age of 34. A state funeral was held, the Mississippi governor acting as one of the pallbearers, and the body carried to the all-white Greenwood Cemetery in Jackson. Hundreds of blacks followed the procession to the grave. The State Legislature, Republican-controlled, passed a bill appropriating $1,000 toward the erection of a suitable monument.
A Democratic newspaper had once referred to Lynch as "the most popular carpetbagger in the State—the best educated, the best speaker, and the most effective orator of that [Republican] party in Mississippi; and, withal, as much of a gentleman as he can be with his present white associations". He had received the love of his black brethren, and the grudging respect of his white adversaries—this man who had spent his short life working tirelessly to "secure fidelity to the Union and political equality to the colored race". In 1990, during the reign of "Jim Crow" lawmaking in Mississippi, the legislature (by a vote of 94 to 0) authorized the "Ladies Auxiliary Cemetery Association", an organization of white women, to remove the remains of James D. Lynch, and the monument honoring him, from the white to the black cemetery in Jackson. A reporter noted that Lynch was "the only colored man" buried in the cemetery—and the monument was "the only instance on record in which Mississippi had made such an appropriation for a monument to one of her deceased sons". He found this "more peculiar by the fact that it was a Negro who was honored".
The law was never carried out. Bolstered by recent radar investigations, it appears that James D. Lynch still rests in Jackson's Greenwood Cemetery—amidst numerous white dignitaries of the past.