Sunday, March 16, 2014

Mississippi's Mixed-up 13th Amendment

Portraits of Blanche Kelso Bruce, Frederick Douglass, and Hiram Rhoades Revels surrounded by scenes of African American life and portraits of Jno. R. Lynch, Abraham Lincoln, James A. Garfield, Ulysses S. Grant, Joseph H. Rainey, Charles E. Nash, John Brown, and Robert Smalls. Crica 1883, from

March 16 marks the anniversary of Mississippi's ratification of the 13th Amendment, the one that proclaims "Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude shall exist within the United States." March 16, 1995, that is.

The 13th Amendment became part of the Constitution in 1865, after three-fourths of the states adopted it, but four took their sweet time: Texas ratified in 1870, Delaware 1901, Kentucky 1976, and Mississippi 1995.

To make matters more delayed, it wasn't until last year that the ratification was official, since the Mississippi legislature forgot (?) to let the US archivist know. After being inspired by the movie "Lincoln," Dr. Ranjan Batra, a professor of Neurobiology at the University of Mississippi, worked with the state archives to fix the clerical oversight, ABCnews reported in February 2013.

Back in 1865, Mississippi's Memphis Daily clarified that their opposition to the amendment was not to the first section outlawing slavery "as the slave states themselves have in convention solemnly decreed emancipation," the newspaper wrote in November. Rather it was the second section that was "amenable to grave objection to every man who is sensible of the high duty of preserving the state sovereignty feature of a mixed government."

The second section states that "Congress shall have power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation."

This encroachment on states rights, the editors declared ironically enough, made its citizens less free. They likened its passage to Napoleon III's 1851 "bloodless coup d'etat that passed France from a Republic to an Empire. The nation went to bed in a polity of freedom and woke up to find masters." (I guess no one likes to be a slave.)

While Mississippi was advocating for laws that disenfranchised its majority black population (just 45% of Mississippians were white at the time), they were also electing 226 black Mississippians to public office, compared to only 46 blacks in Arkansas and 20 in Tennessee, according to the Mississippi Historical Society.

Mississippi also sent the nation's first and second African-Americans to the US Congress, Hiram R. Revels who served an incomplete term 1870-1871, and Blanche Kelso Bruce who served a full term 1874-1881.

Political progress was not enough for the prejudice seared into hearts and minds, concluded Colonel Samuel Thomas, the assistant commissioner of the Freedman's Bureau.  Though white Mississippians “admit that the individual relations of masters and slaves have been destroyed by the war and the President's emancipation proclamation, they still have an ingrained feeling that the blacks at large belong to the whites at large,” Colonel Thomas told lawmakers in 1865.

Between 1881 and 1898, however, America's currency at large belonged to Mississippi Senator and former-slave Blanche K. Bruce. Senator Bruce was appointed by President Garfield to be the Register of the Treasury, making him the first African-American whose signature was represented on U.S. paper currency.

When he was re-appointed by President William McKinley in 1897, editors at the Washington Bee were unequivocal.

"Newspapers of all shades of politics agree that in the appointment of exSenator Bruce to the Register of the Treasury, President McKinley has made an admirable selection."  Editors from the Herald in Rochester, NY concluded, "Blanche K. Bruce, the new Register of the Treasury, is of African decent, but the name on a greenback is not to be sneezed at."

Senator Bruce died one year later, on March 17, 1898.

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Flannery O'Connor

You shall know the truth and the truth shall make you odd.