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February 1: The First Black Secretary of State

Lawrence Bush
February 1, 2017

Francis Lewis Cardozo, the son of a free black woman and a Sephardic Jewish father who became the first African American in history to hold statewide office when he became South Carolina’s secretary of state in 1868, was born in Charleston on this date in 1836. Cardozo’s parents were forbidden by law to marry but lived as a common-law couple and encouraged their two sons to be educated at the only schools available, segregated schools for free blacks. Cardozo attended college in Edinburgh and London and became a Presbyterian minister before returning to the U.S., where he served as a pastor and educator. Active in Republican Party politics after the CIvil War, he attended the 1868 South Carolina constitutional convention, where he advocated unsuccessfully for racially integrated education. That same year, he was elected secretary of state, and four years later, he became state treasurer, a post to which he was reelected in 1874 and 1876, then forced to resign from in 1877 when federal troops were withdrawn from the South. Cardozo was a distant relative of Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, and his granddaughter, Eslanda Cardozo Goode, was the wife of Paul Robeson.

“One of the greatest bulwarks of slavery was the infernal plantation system, one man owning his thousand, another his twenty, and another fifty thousand acres of land. This is the only way by which we will break up that system and I maintain that our freedom will be of no effect if we allow it to continue. What is the main cause of the prosperity of the North? It is because every man has his own farm and is free and independent. Let the lands of the South be similarly divided. I would not say for one moment they should be confiscated, but if sold to maintain the war, now that slavery is destroyed, let the plantation system go with it.” --Francis Cardozo at the South Carolina Constitutional Convention, 1868

​​​​Lawrence Bush edited Jewish Currents from 2003 until 2018. He is the author of Bessie: A Novel of Love and Revolution and Waiting for God: The Spiritual Explorations of a Reluctant Atheist, among other books. His new volume of illustrated Torah commentaries, American Torah Toons 2, is scheduled for publication this year.