Alexander K. Davis was a central figure in Mississippi Reconstruction. A lawyer and Tennessee native about whom little is known prior to his arrival in Mississippi in 1869, he became the state’s first African American lieutenant governor before being impeached in 1875 as part of the Mississippi Plan to return government to white Democrats.
Davis entered politics in 1869, when he was one of forty African Americans, most of them ex-slaves, who won seats in Mississippi’s first Reconstruction legislature, which convened on 11 January 1870 in Jackson. Davis was elected to the State House of Representatives from Noxubee County, in eastern Mississippi. He served on the House Ways and Means Committee and chaired the Committee on Salaries and Fees of Public Officers. During his three years as a legislator, he authored and sponsored more than twenty-five bills, among them House Bill No. 6, which sought to extend the debt-collection period in Noxubee County, and House Bill No. 11 to “regulate, reduce and cause uniformity of tolls and charges on the Mobile and Ohio Railroad.”
Davis was an active participant in Republican Party machine politics. At the state’s 1873 Radical Republican convention, Davis and other elected black Republicans lobbied to have at least three African American candidates included on the statewide slate. The Republicans did so, nominating Davis for lieutenant governor, T. W. Cardozo for state superintendent of education, and James Hill for secretary of state. All three men won, as did white Republican Adelbert Ames, the party’s gubernatorial nominee. In addition, black Republican candidates took 55 of the 115 seats in the House of Representatives, and Warren County’s I. D. Shadd was elected Speaker.
The election inspired riots across the state in Water Valley, Louisville, Macon, Yazoo City, Friars Point, Columbus, Rolling Fork, Clinton, and Vicksburg, and the Democratic Party struck back two years later. Using both legal and illegal tactics, Democratic candidates took 97 seats in the State House and 26 of 35 seats in the State Senate.
The Democrats then turned to unseating the Republicans who occupied Mississippi’s highest offices. Since Davis was the highest ranking of the three African American officeholders, Democrats regarded his ouster as essential, especially because they also intended to impeach Governor Ames. The legislature alleged that Davis had committed a series of unlawful actions while serving as acting governor—“excessive” and “illegal” granting of pardons and the “questionable” commutation and remission of sentences. Between 22 January 1874 and 2 January 1875, legislators charged, Davis had “pardoned thirty-two out of the [state] penitentiary, four out of county jails, seventeen before trial”; in addition, he had issued “six commutations and six remissions.”
Davis denied all charges, but on 14 February 1876, the House committee investigating him recommended filing articles of impeachment. Five days later, the House voted to approve five articles of impeachment against Davis for “high crimes and misdemeanors” related to the pardon of Thomas Barrentine, who had been charged with murder.
The State Senate held Davis’s trial, with Mississippi Supreme Court associate justice James Tarbell presiding. After nearly a month of proceedings, on 26 February 1876 the Senate voted thirty-one to four in favor of impeachment, with two abstentions. The sentencing phase of the impeachment proceedings, however, was suspended and delayed because Democrats feared that Ames would appoint a new Republican lieutenant governor. The legislature then scheduled Ames’s impeachment proceedings to begin on 28 March and voted to repeal the governor’s power to appoint state officials.
Davis assumed that his conviction would mean his removal from office and resigned. Also anticipating an impeachment conviction, Ames resigned and left the state even before the end of the trial proceedings. Cardozo, too, resigned after being impeached. The Democrats’ Mississippi Plan had succeeded.
- Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction (1996)
- Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1977 (2002)
- James Garner, Reconstruction in Mississippi (1968)
- James Loewen and Charles Sallis, Mississippi: Conflict and Change (1974)
- Vernon Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1890 (1965)