Caldwell, Charles, (1831 or 1832–25 Dec. 1875), blacksmith and state legislator

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Niven, Steven J.. "Caldwell, Charles." African American National Biography, edited by Ed. Henry Louis Gates Jr.. , edited by and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. . Oxford African American Studies Center, (accessed Sun Feb 15 15:32:01 EST 2015).


Caldwell, Charles, (1831 or 1832–25 Dec. 1875), blacksmith and state legislator, was born to slave parents whose names have not been recorded. Nothing is known of his childhood, other than that he had one brother, Sam. By the time he reached adulthood, Charles Caldwell was working as a blacksmith in Clinton, a small village in Hinds County twelve miles from Jackson, Mississippi. Given that Mississippi's slave population expanded rapidly in the three decades after 1830, it is quite possible that Caldwell was born in another state to planters who had then brought or sold him on the lucrative Mississippi market.

Caldwell's skilled trade provided him a degree of relative autonomy in his work and may have enabled him to travel with fewer restrictions than the average plantation slave. Slave blacksmiths, carpenters, barbers, and other skilled workers often learned to read and write, as Caldwell did, and generally enjoyed a high status within the African American community. The high status of such craftsmen continued after slavery. During Reconstruction more than four hundred black artisans served as officeholders. As one of sixteen African American Republican delegates who participated in Mississippi's Constitutional Convention in 1868, Caldwell was arguably the most politically accomplished of them. Although blacks accounted for three-fifths of the Mississippi electorate, eighty-four of the convention's one hundred delegates were white. Contrary to later claims that carpetbaggers dominated this so-called black-and-tan convention, two-thirds of the delegates were native-born southerners. Caldwell took an active role in the proceedings of the convention, generally voting with the more radical Republican faction and, after much effort, helping to form a constitution that greatly expanded the powers of Mississippi's state government. It established an integrated public school system, legalized interracial marriages, and granted the vote to all adult men, regardless of property and race.

The convention also secured property rights for all citizens, regardless of race or gender, though the final constitutional provisions were less radical than Caldwell had hoped. During the convention debates he testified that, even after slavery, the freed people had no protections against whites who seized their property. The convention agreed with Caldwell's proposal that the state's new constitution recognize former slaves’ right to property. Caldwell's proposal would have also secured the property rights of thousands of black women who, in the post–Civil War era and for the first time, had begun to legally purchase their own goods, crops, poultry, and livestock. A separate amendment by Caldwell's colleague, Thomas W. Stringer, however, subsumed women's property rights in favor of those of their husbands. In the end the convention's proposed constitution was defeated by the narrowest of margins in a statewide referendum in June 1868 that was marked by fraud and the violent intimidation of black voters.

At some time after the convention but before the referendum, Caldwell was tried before a magistrate at Clinton for having shot and killed a white man. A white attorney who aided Caldwell's defense later told a U.S. Senate investigation that this was the first recorded instance in Hinds County of a black man killing a white. In a decision that signaled a new era in race relations in Mississippi, the magistrate quickly dismissed the case for lack of a cause when it was established that the victim had attempted to shoot at Caldwell first but had missed. Although Caldwell had acted in self-defense and had been exonerated by a white magistrate, his victim was the son of a prominent judge and belonged to one of the leading families in the county. White resentment of Caldwell and depictions of him as a “notorious and turbulent negro” were probably sparked by this shooting.

After the state adopted a somewhat revised constitution in December 1869, Caldwell stepped down from his seat on the Hinds County Board of Police to serve as one of only five African Americans in the thirty-three-member Mississippi Senate. During his five years in that body, he earned a reputation as one of the more radical and defiant black Republicans, and as a loyal supporter of Mississippi's Maine-born Republican governor Adelbert Ames. Nevertheless, even whites who resented the presence of northern carpetbaggers and their own former slaves in such exalted positions had a grudging respect for Caldwell. In the senate, Caldwell voted with the Republican majority to endorse the Fourteenth and Fifteenth amendments to the U.S. Constitution and for measures to bring about an end to racial discrimination in Mississippi.

Caldwell's support for gender equality continued. He worked closely with Sarah Ann Dickey, an Ohio-born white woman who had arrived in Clinton in 1870 to teach at the town's first public school. When Ku Klux Klansmen threatened her, and native whites refused to take Dickey as a boarder, Caldwell offered her a room in his house. Dickey later relied heavily on Caldwell's political connections in the state capital when she founded the Mount Hermon Seminary, a school for black women modeled on her Massachusetts alma mater, Mount Holyoke, in Jackson in 1875. Caldwell chaired the biracial board of trustees of Dickey's seminary. Caldwell's support for women's rights is also evident in his work to secure passage of a law requiring married men to seek their wives’ consent before selling their property. He and his legislative colleagues were less successful in challenging the entrenched economic power of Mississippi's white planters, in spite of mass protests in Hinds County in the early 1870s in support of rent controls and against low wages. By the time of the 1875 elections, however, Caldwell's energies, and those of his colleagues were focused increasingly on resisting a statewide wave of white violence against blacks and white Republicans. Several hundred citizens, mostly black, were killed by the Ku Klux Klan and similar racist “white line” groups between 1870 and 1875. The federal government intervened in response to only one of these attacks, when between forty and eighty African Americans were killed at Vicksburg in December 1874.

While Reconstruction's opponents were determined to secure victory in the 1875 elections by violence, if necessary, Caldwell was equally resolute in his efforts to ensure the integrity of the constitutional process. On 4 September 1875 Caldwell invited a prominent white Democrat to give the opening speech at a large Republican barbecue and rally. Though Caldwell had urged the 1,500 blacks in attendance to avoid alcohol and to leave their guns at home, his careful preparations failed to prevent what became known as the Clinton Riot. As Caldwell had hoped, the predominantly black crowd gave the white Democratic speaker a respectful hearing. Shortly after a white Republican began to speak, however, the calm was broken by several shots, followed by general pandemonium. One account of the event suggests that a black policeman had asked two whites to leave the rally when he discovered them consuming alcohol. The white men allegedly started shooting but ran away when it became apparent that African Americans outnumbered them. A group of young black men, possibly unarmed, tracked the white men down and beat them to death. Two African Americans were also killed in the melee.

Caldwell attempted to secure order but was unable to prevent four days of violence in which whites from Hinds County, aided by specially trained mercenaries from Vicksburg, known as the “Modocs,” systematically hunted down and killed fifty or more African Americans in Clinton and the surrounding area. Around fifty of the Modocs—named after a tribe of fierce-fighting Californian Indians—visited Caldwell's home. The senator had not yet returned, but his wife (little is known of the union, except that the woman's name was Margaret Ann, and that the couple had a son, who was named for his father) later testified before a congressional committee that the Modocs robbed and vandalized the Caldwell home and killed several of their neighbors. She recalled that the leader of the mercenaries vowed to kill Senator Caldwell: “[I]f it is two years, or one year, or six; no difference…. We have orders to kill him, and we are going to do it” (Lemann, 115).

In response to the violence at Clinton and a similar white riot at Yazoo City, Governor Ames attempted to disarm the white paramilitary bands and clubs that had recently formed throughout the state. He assembled a state militia of two white and five black companies and appointed Caldwell as captain and commanding officer of the first of these companies to muster, Company A of the Second Regiment of the Mississippi Infantry. Although Caldwell and his men readied themselves for action, Ames was reluctant to force a confrontation with the white paramilitaries. In October 1875, however, the governor assigned Caldwell's company to deliver arms to another state militia company at Edwards Depot, thirty miles west of Jackson. The mere sight of Caldwell and his three hundred men, in uniform, armed, and in high spirits, their banners flying behind them, terrified whites, regardless of the fact that Caldwell's men were on official state business. A day after Caldwell delivered the arms to Edwards Depot, Governor Ames gave in to pressure from white Democrats and abandoned the militia experiment.

Without the protection of the militias, the elections of November 1875 were marked by fraud, violence, and intimidation. Many Republicans remained at home on election day, fearing that they would be attacked or killed. Caldwell and thousands of black Mississippians nonetheless insisted on casting their ballots for the Republicans, but they were unable to prevent the Democrats from winning both houses of the Mississippi legislature. White mob violence continued after the election, resulting in the deaths of Noah B. Parker and five others at Rolling Fork in early December 1875. It was expected that Caldwell would be a compelling witness at the proposed U.S. Senate investigation of the Clinton Riot and other election irregularities, but he did not live long enough to testify. On Christmas Day in 1875, Caldwell left his home to meet a white friend, Buck Cabell, for a drink. Cabell had not previously been connected to white resistance groups, but what followed suggested he was not the friend Caldwell believed him to be. The two men sat in a cellar and raised their glasses to each other. The sound of the glasses clinking was apparently a signal for a marksman waiting outside the cellar window, who shot Caldwell in the back of the head. Margaret Ann Caldwell later reported to Senate investigators her husband's dying words, told to her by a witness: “Remember when you kill me you kill a gentleman and a brave man. Never say you killed a coward” (Lemann, 158). His body was then riddled with bullets. Other blacks in the vicinity, including Caldwell's brother, were also executed.

In the 1940s the historian Herbert Aptheker suggested that it “is altogether likely that one day Mississippi school children, Negro and white, will be taught to revere the name of Charles Caldwell” (Aptheker, 187).

Further Reading

  • Extensive testimony regarding Charles Caldwell's activities as a state senator, the violence that preceded the 1875 elections, and his assassination can be found in Mississippi in 1875. Report of the Select Committee to Inquire into the Mississippi Election of 1875, United States Congress, 1875.
  • Aptheker, Herbert. To Be Free: Studies in American Negro History (1948, repr. 1969).
  • Griffith, Helen. Dauntless in Mississippi: The Life of Sarah A. Dickey, 1838–1904 (1965, repr. 1978).
  • Lemann, Nicholas. Redemption: The Last Battle of the Civil War (2006)

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