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Facts of Reconstruction, The

CHAPTER XXIV

INTERVIEW WITH SECRETARY LAMAR ON THE RETAINING OF COLORED MEN IN OFFICE

In selecting his first cabinet Mr. Cleveland did Mr. Lamar and the State of Mississippi the honor of making him his Secretary of the Interior. Early in the administration, upon the occasion of my first visit to Washington after the inauguration of Mr. Cleveland, I called on Secretary Lamar to pay him my respects and tender him my congratulations upon his appointment. When I entered his office he was engaged in conversation with some prominent New York Democrats, Mayor Grace, of New York City, being one of the party. The Secretary received me cordially; and, after introducing me to the gentlemen with whom he was conversing, requested me to take a seat in the adjoining room, which was used as his private office, until the departure of the gentlemen with whom he was then engaged; remarking at the same time that there was an important matter about which he desired to talk with me.

I had been seated only a short while before he made his appearance. As soon as he had taken his seat he said:

"Lynch, you have shown me some favors in the past, and I desire to manifest in a substantial way my appreciation of what you have done for me and the friendly interest you have taken in me. No one knows better than I do, or can appreciate more keenly than I can, the value of the services you have rendered me, and the satisfactory results of your friendly interest in me. In saying this I do not wish to even intimate that you have done anything for me that was inconsistent with the position occupied by you as an influential leader of the Republican party of our State. The truth is, you were, fortunately, placed in such a position that you were enabled to render a great service to a Mississippi Democrat without doing a single act, or giving expression to a single thought, that was not in harmony with your position as a leader of your own party. That you saw fit to make me, rather than some other Democrat, the beneficiary of your partiality is what I keenly appreciate, highly value and now desire to reciprocate. The Republican party is now out of power, and it is likely to remain so for the next quarter of a century. Fortunately for me I am now so situated that I can reciprocate, in a small measure, the friendly interest you have taken in me in the recent past; and this, I hope, you will allow me to do. I have an office at my disposal that I want you to accept. I know you are a pronounced Republican. I neither ask nor expect you to change your politics. Knowing you as I do, it would be useless for me to make such a request of you even if I desired to have you make such a change. All I shall ask of you is that you be not offensively active or boldly aggressive in political matters while you hold a commission from me. In other words, I want to render you a service without having you compromise your political standing, and without making the slightest change in your party affiliations. However, recognizing as you must the delicacy of the situation resulting from the position I occupy and the relation that I sustain to the administration, you will, I know, refrain from saying and doing anything that will place me in an embarrassing position before the public and before the administration with which I am identified. The office to which I refer is that of special agent of public lands. The salary is fifteen hundred a year and expenses. The place is worth from two thousand to two thousand five hundred a year. I shall not send you down South, where you may have some unpleasant and embarrassing experiences, but I will send you out into the Black Hills, where you will not be subjected to the slightest inconvenience and where you will have very little to do, but make your reports and draw your pay. If you say you will accept the appointment I shall give immediate directions for the commission to be made out and you can take the oath of office within the next twenty-four hours."

Of course I listened with close attention and with deep interest to what the honorable Secretary said. When he had finished, I replied in about these words:

"Mr. Secretary, I fully appreciate the friendly interest you manifest in me, and I also appreciate what you are willing to do for me. If I have rendered you any services in the past, I can assure you that they were not rendered with the expectation that you would thereby be placed under any obligations to me whatever. If I preferred you to others in your own party it was because I believed in you the State would have the services of one of its best, most brilliant and most eloquent representatives. It was the good of the State and the best interests of its people rather than the personal advancement of an individual that actuated me. The exalted position now occupied by you I consider a confirmation of the wisdom of my decision. But the fact cannot be overlooked that while you are an able and influential leader in the Democratic party, I am, though not so able nor so influential, a leader,—locally, if not nationally,—in the Republican party. While I can neither hope nor expect to reach that point of honor and distinction in the Republican party that you have reached in the Democratic, I am just as proud of the position I occupy to-day as a Republican, as it is possible for you to be of yours as a Democrat. Even if it be true, as you predict—of course I do not agree with you—that the Republican party will be out of power for the next quarter of a century, or even if that party should never again come into power, that fact cannot and will not have the slightest weight with me. Therefore, I do not feel that you, as a member of a National Democratic Administration, can afford to tender me any position that I can see my way clear to accept. While I fully and keenly appreciate your friendly interest in me and your desire and willingness to serve me, I cannot accept the position you have so gracefully tendered me, nor can I accept any other you may see fit to offer me.

"But, if you want to render me a service, I can tell you wherein it can be done,—a service that will be just as much appreciated as any you can possibly render me. When I was a member of Congress I secured the appointment of quite a number of young colored men to clerkships in the Pension Bureau of your department. I understand that all these men have excellent records. If you will retain them in their positions I shall feel that you have repaid me for whatever you may think I have done for you in the past."

"That," the Secretary replied, "is a very reasonable request. Come to see me again in a day or two and bring a list of their names and I will then see just what I can do along those lines."

I then bade Mr. Lamar good-bye and left his office. A few days later I returned with the list. But upon that list I had placed the names of two men who had not been appointed on my recommendation. One was a colored man, a physician; the other was a white man, a lawyer. The physician occupied a position that was in the line of his profession. The lawyer was a clerk in the Pension Bureau, who had been recently appointed upon the recommendation of Senator Bruce. The physician had been connected with the public service a long time. I knew both men favorably and felt that it was my duty to save them if in my power. Both were married and had interesting families.

When I placed the list in the Secretary's hands he read it over very carefully, and then said:

"I think I can safely assure you that the name of every one on this list will be retained except these two"—indicating the colored physician and the white lawyer. "This physician," the Secretary said, "is a colored man, and the husband of a white wife. The lawyer is a white man, and the husband of a colored wife. I cannot promise you, therefore, that they will be retained, however capable and efficient they may be. So far as I am personally concerned, it would make no material difference; I should just as lief retain them as any of the others. But I cannot afford to antagonize public opinion in my State on the question of amalgamation. One of these men, the white lawyer, is from my own State, where he is well known. His case is recent, and fresh in the public mind. So far as he is concerned, I can see no escape. With the colored physician it may be different. He is not from my State and is not known in the State. I doubt very much if anyone in the State knows anything about him, or is aware of the fact that the position occupied by him is under my department. If attention is not called to his case, I shall let him alone.

"But with the lawyer it is different. A representative of a Mississippi newspaper that is unfriendly to me is now on the ground. He has a list of all the Republicans,—especially the colored ones,—holding positions in this department. The name of this lawyer is on that list. It is the intention of the faction his paper represents to bring pressure to bear upon me to force me to turn all of these men out of office for political reasons, regardless of their official standing. But, so far as your friends are concerned, I shall defy them except in the case of this lawyer, and also in the case of this physician if attention is called to him. In their cases, or either of them, I shall be obliged, for reasons already given; to yield."

Strange to say, attention was never called to the case of the physician and he remained in office during the whole of Mr. Cleveland's first administration. I made a strong appeal to the Secretary in behalf of my friend, the white lawyer. I said in substance:

"Mr. Secretary, you ought not to allow this deserving man to be punished simply because he was brave enough to legally marry the woman of his choice. You know him personally. You know him to be an able and brilliant young man. You know that he is now discharging the responsible duties of the position which he occupies in your department with credit to himself, and to the satisfaction of his official superiors. You know that you have not a better nor a more capable official connected with the public service than you have in this able young man. Under these circumstances it is your duty, as the responsible head of your department, to protect him and his estimable family from this gross wrong,—this cruel injustice. For no one knows better than you do, Mr. Secretary, that this alleged opposition to amalgamation is both hypocritical and insincere. If a natural antipathy existed between the two races no law would be necessary to keep them apart. The law, then, against race intermarriage has a tendency to encourage and promote race intermixture, rather than to discourage and prevent it; because under existing circumstances local sentiment in our part of the country tolerates the intermixture, provided that the white husband and father does not lead to the altar in honorable wedlock the woman he may have selected as the companion of his life, and the mother of his children. If, instead of prohibiting race intermarriage, the law would compel marriage in all cases of concubinage, such a law would have a tendency to discourage race intermixture; because it is only when they marry according to the forms of law that the white husband and father is socially and otherwise ostracized. Under the common law,—which is the established and recognized rule of action in all of our States in the absence of a local statute by which a different rule is established,—a valid marriage is nothing more than a civil contract entered into between two persons capable of making contracts. But under our form of government marriage, like everything else, is what public opinion sees fit to make it.

"It is true that in our part of the country no union of the sexes is looked upon as a legal marriage unless the parties to the union are married according to the form prescribed by the local statutes. While that is true it is also true that there are many unions, which, but for the local statutes, would be recognized and accepted as legal marriages and which, even under existing conditions, are tolerated by local sentiment and sanctioned by custom. Such unions are known to exist, and yet are presumed not to exist. None are so blind as those who can see but will not see. One of the unwritten but most effective and rigid laws of our section,—which everyone respects and never violates,—is that a man's private and domestic life must never be made the subject of political or public discussion or newspaper notoriety. The man, who at any time or under any provocation will so far forget himself as to say or do anything that can be construed into a violation of that unwritten law, will be likely to pay the penalty with his own life and that, too, without court, judge, or jury; and the one by whom the penalty may be inflicted will stand acquitted and justified before the bar of public opinion. If, then, this able and brilliant young man,—whose bread and meat you now have at your disposal,—had lived in concubinage with the mother of his children, no law against custom and tradition would have been violated, and no one would suggest that he be punished for what he had done. Knowing these facts as you do, you ought to rise to the dignity of the occasion and protect this good and innocent man from the cruel, unjust, and unreasonable demands that are now being made upon you to dispense with his valuable services. This gentleman, to my personal knowledge, is not only worthy of whatever you may do for him, but his elegant and accomplished wife is one of the finest and most cultivated ladies it has ever been my good fortune to know. She is not only remarkably intelligent, but she is a woman of fine natural ability and of superior attainments. She is such a brilliant conversationalist,—so interesting, so instructive and so entertaining,—that it is a great pleasure and satisfaction to have the opportunity of being in her delightful presence, and of sitting within the sound of her sweet, charming, and musical voice. In physical development she is as near perfection as it is possible for a woman to be. I have had the good fortune of knowing her well for a number of years, and I have always admired her for her excellent traits and admirable qualities. She is a woman that would ornament and grace the parlor and honor the home of the finest and best man that ever lived, regardless of his race or nationality or the station he may occupy in life, however exalted that station may be. She married the man of her choice because she had learned to love and honor him, and because, in her opinion, he possessed everything, except wealth, that was calculated to contribute to her comfort, pleasure and happiness. In a recent conversation I had with her, her beautiful, large dark eyes sparkled with delight, and her sweet and lovely face was suffused with a smile of satisfaction when she informed me that she had never had occasion to regret her selection of a husband. She was then the mother of several very handsome children, to whom she pointed with pardonable pride. The products of such a union could not possibly be otherwise than attractive, for the father was a remarkably handsome man, while the mother was a personification of the typical southern beauty. The man was devoted to his family. How could he be otherwise? Husband and wife were so strongly attached to each other that both were more than willing to make any sacrifice that cruel fate might have in store for them.

"I therefore appeal to you, Mr. Secretary, in behalf of this charming and accomplished woman and her sweet and lovely children. In taking this position I am satisfied you will have nothing to lose, for you will not only have right on your side, but the interest of the public service as well. Rise, then, to the dignity of the occasion and assert and maintain your manhood and your independence. You have done this on previous occasions, why not do it again? As a member of the Senate of the United States you openly and publicly defied the well-known public sentiment of your party in the State which you then had the honor in part to represent, when you disregarded and repudiated the mandate of the State Legislature, instructing you to vote for the free and unlimited coinage of silver. It was that vote and the spirit of manly independence shown by you on that occasion that placed you in the high and responsible position you now occupy, the duties of which your friends know will be discharged in a way that will reflect credit upon yourself and honor upon your State.

"You again antagonized the dominant sentiment of the Democratic party of your State when you pronounced an eloquent eulogy upon the life and character of Charles Sumner. And yet you were able to overcome the bitter opposition you had encountered on each of those occasions. You can do the same thing in this case. I therefore ask you to promise me that this worthy and competent public servant shall not be discharged as long as his official record remains good."

The Secretary listened to my remarks with close and respectful attention. When I had finished he said:

"I agree with nearly all you have said. My sympathies are with your friend and it is my desire to retain him in the position he now so satisfactorily fills. But when you ask me to disregard and openly defy the well-known sentiment of the white people of my State on the question of amalgamation, I fear you make a request of me which I cannot safely grant, however anxious I may be to serve you. I could defend myself before a public audience in my State on the silver question and on the Sumner eulogy much more successfully than on the question of amalgamation; although in the main, I recognize the force and admit the truth of what you have said upon that subject. Hypocritical and insincere as the claim may be with reference to maintaining the absolute separation of the two races, the sentiment on that subject is one which no man who is ambitious to have a political future can safely afford to ignore,—especially under the new order of things about which you are well posted. While I am sorry for your friend, and should be pleased to grant your request in his case, I cannot bring myself to a realization of the fact that it is one of sufficient national importance to justify me in taking the stand you have so forcibly and eloquently suggested."

This ended the interview. I went to the home of my friend that evening, and informed him and his amiable wife of what had been said and done. They thanked me warmly for my efforts in their behalf, and assured me that there was a future before them, and that in the battle of life they were determined to know no such word as "fail." A few weeks later my friend's official connection with the public service was suddenly terminated. He and his family then left Washington for Kansas, I think. About a year thereafter he had occasion to visit Washington on business. I happened to be there at that time. He called to see me and informed me that, instead of regretting what had occurred, he had every reason to be thankful for it, since he had done very much better than he could have done had he remained at Washington. I was, of course, very much gratified to hear this and warmly congratulated him. Since that time, however, I have not seen him nor any member of his family, nor have I heard anything from them except indirectly, although I have made a number of unsuccessful efforts to find them. I am inclined to the opinion that, like thousands of people of the same class, their identity with the colored race has long since ceased and that they have been absorbed by the white race, as I firmly believe will be true of the great mass of colored Americans. It is to prevent any embarrassment growing out of the probability of this condition that has actuated me in not making public the names of the parties in question. No good could come of the disclosure, and much harm might follow. I can, however, most positively assure the public that this is not a fiction,—that it is not a mere picture that is painted from the vividness of my imagination, but that the story as related in all its details is based upon actual occurrences.

With this one exception, Secretary Lamar retained in office every clerk whose name appeared on the list that I gave him. They were not only retained throughout the Administration but many of them were promoted. It can be said to the credit of Secretary Lamar that during his administration very few changes were made in the clerical force of the department for political reasons, and, as a rule, the clerks were treated with justice, fairness and impartiality.



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