From 1864 to 1872 James Lynch was an important figure in Mississippi politics and religion. The son of free African Americans, Lynch was born in 1838 in Baltimore. He started his education there before moving on to Kimball Union Academy in New Hampshire. He became a minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, North and served congregations in Indiana and Illinois. In 1860 Lynch moved to Pennsylvania, where he became editor of the Philadelphia Advocate. In late 1864 he traveled to Savannah, Georgia, where he met with African American clergy, Gen. William Tecumseh Sherman, and Secretary of War Edwin M. Stanton. At times during the meeting, Stanton polled the African Americans present to see if they agreed on various points: on two occasions, Lynch was the sole dissenter, arguing that African Americans would not need to live in separate colonies and declining to support General Sherman on the grounds of lack of familiarity. Lynch soon returned north.
In 1867 Lynch settled in Mississippi as a representative of his denomination, reporting that the group had six thousand members and had established twenty meetinghouses and many schools. He helped to establish Shaw University (now Rust College) in Holly Springs. Lynch resided on Jackson’s Capitol Street with his wife and two sons and bought several other town lots.
While he continued his interest in religion, education, and Masonry, Lynch soon became actively engaged in politics, serving as vice president of several state Republican conventions. His fame and influence rested primarily on his oratorical skills, which received praise from both whites and blacks. African Americans traveled for miles to hear him speak. Lynch could orchestrate the emotions of his audience and was an effective political debater and campaigner.
In the factional struggles between conservative and Radical Republicans in Mississippi, Lynch allied himself with the conservatives led by James L. Alcorn. For example, Lynch campaigned for the ratification of the constitution of 1868 even though he had not supported its most controversial provisions, which prohibited supporters of secession from holding public office and required voters to subscribe to a declaration of civil and political racial equality. He was elected secretary of state in 1869 on a ticket headed by Alcorn. In fact, he received more votes than Alcorn. He did a creditable job in that post and served on the State Board of Education. Hiram Rhoades Revels, who completed Lynch’s term as secretary of state, stated that he found the office and records in good condition. Lynch did not object to the establishment of a segregated school system, but he was concerned that school funds be distributed fairly. Lynch believed that former slaves should rely on landowning rather than sharecropping and argued that government policies should make it possible for freed blacks to purchase between 40 and 160 acres of land and pay for it over five years at 6 percent interest.
In 1870 he contended briefly for nomination for the US Senate, but the position went instead to Revels. Radical Republican criticism of Lynch increased, but he also faced allegations that he was a heavy drinker. These allegations helped George McKee defeat Lynch for nomination to Congress in 1872, although bribery may also have played a role. Lynch was also accused of rape but was acquitted. Disappointed by these events, Lynch did not participate in the 1872 presidential election in Mississippi, though he did serve as a delegate to the Republican National Convention that year. He addressed the convention so effectively that he was invited to campaign for the reelection of Pres. Ulysses S. Grant in Indiana and Illinois.
Soon after his return to Jackson, he was diagnosed with Bright’s disease of the kidneys (glomerulonephritus), and he died on 18 December 1872. He was buried in Greenwood cemetery in Jackson, and the Republican-controlled legislature appropriated money for a statue there in his honor.
- Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction (1996)
- William C. Harris, Historian 34 (1971)
- “Minutes of Interview between Colored Ministers and Secretary of War and General Sherman” (12 January 1865), in Official Records of the War of the Rebellion, Series i, vol. 47, pt. 2
- George Alexander Sewell and Margaret Dwight, Mississippi’s Black History Makers (1984)
- Vernon Lane Wharton, The Negro in Mississippi, 1865–1890 (1965)