Forgotten Heroes of Southern History: George Washington Albright – From Chains to Office

George Washington Albright was born enslaved to a Mississippi planter, but later served in the Reconstructed legislature. While in bondage, his mother secretly taught him to read and write. During the war, he took part in a secret organization bringing news of freedom to the enslaved people of the South. After the war ended, not only was he part of the new Mississippi government, he helped to organize free schools for the former slaves. When the Ku Klux Klan began to push back, he helped to form black militias to beat them back.

Mr. Albright goes on to explain why poor whites decided to side with the rich whites rather than with blacks and their own self-interests. He also explains why, by the 1900s, he could no longer consider himself part of the Republican Party.

The interview, conducted in the mid-1930s, was poorly transcribed, so some of the specifics might be off. Also, I’ve footnoted a few items, confirming or clarifying what Albright said.

His Early Life

George Washington Albright, taken in 1875.
George Washington Albright, taken in 1875.
When I was born, in 1846, on a plantation near Holly Springs, Mississippi, my mother and father were held by different owners, and when I was 11 years old, my father was sold to a man in Texas. It’s said today that the slaveowners did not separate families, but actually a plantation owner thought no more of selling a man away from his wife, or a mother away from her children, than of sending a cow or a horse out of the state.It was only by trickery that I learned to read and write. There was a law on the Mississippi statute books, that if any slave learned to read or write, he was to be punished with 500 lashes on the naked back, and to have the thumb cut off above the second joint. If any master allowed his slave to read or write, he was required to pay the state $500 in damages. 1Mississippi law at the time held that those teaching slaves to read or write could be jailed or fined. In North Carolina, a white person would be fined as much as $200 for teaching a slave to read or write, while a slave doing the same would be imprisoned and subjected to thirty-nine lashes. See Chapters in the History of Social Legislation in the United States to 1860 by Henry Walcott Farnam, p193. While the “500 lashes” may be either a misunderstanding by the transcriber or hyperbole, the cutting off the thumbs actually seems to be true, or at least widely accepted. Other slaves mentioned this practice (see Self-Taught by Heather Andrea Williams, p18), and other authors independently referenced it (see The Negro in the New World by Sir Harry Hamilton Johnston, p371).

However, the white children on my plantation often did their lessons in the kitchen, in my mother’s presence, and she picked up what information she could, and taught me. I got a primer, and I learned to read it.

The Grapevine Telegraph

We slaves knew very little about what was going on outside our plantations, for our owners aimed to keep us in darkness. But sometimes, by grapevine telegraph, we learned of great events.

It was impossible to keep the news of John Brown’s attack on Harpers Ferry from spreading. That attack threw a scare into the slave owners. One day not long after the arrest of Brown, a boy in a nearby orchard shot off a pop gun and my mistress ran in terror to the house, screaming that the insurrectionists were coming.

A Runner in the War

Like many other slaves, my father ran away from his plantation in Texas and joined the Union forces. I found out later that he was killed fighting in the battle of Vicksburg. 2The African Brigade had two regiments from Mississippi, the 1st and 3rd. While they did not take part in the Battle of Vicksburg, they fought in the nearby Battle of Milliken’s Bend and were rotated into garrison duty at Vicksburg until after the war.

When the Emancipation Proclamation was signed, the plantation owners tried to keep the news from us. The Washington government, however, organized an underground information service to inform the slaves of their freedom. 3This is somewhat true. President Lincoln met with Frederick Douglass to come up with such a plan. Douglass wrote: “I listened with the deepest interest and profoundest satisfaction, and, at his suggestion, agreed to undertake the organizing a band of scouts, composed of coloured men….” See The Life and Times of Frederick Douglass, p313.

The slaves, themselves, had to carry the news to one another. That was my first job in the fight for the rights of my people — to tell the slaves that they were free, to keep them informed and in readiness to assist the Union armies whenever the opportunity came.

I was 15 years old when I became a runner for what we called the 4-Ls — Lincoln’s Legal Loyal League. I traveled about the plantations within a certain range, and got together small meetings in the cabins to tell the slaves the great news. Some of these slaves in turn would find their way to still other plantations — and so the story spread. We had to work in dead secrecy; we had knocks and signs and passwords.

It wasn’t until many years later that I found out how the 4-Ls had been organized. It was started after a committee of six went to Washington to see Lincoln for that purpose.

On the committee were Frederick Douglass, John Langston and James Lynch, outstanding Negro leaders’ and three white Abolitionists — Henry Ward Beecher, Charles Sumner and Mrs. Harriet Beecher Stowe. This committee asked Lincoln to put the Proclamation into effect by informing the slaves. Emissaries were sent out from the North to start the word on its way. 4Though the 4-Ls seems fairly unlikely, there is actually some proof of its existence. According to Sana Butler, author of Sugar of the Crop: My Journey to Find the Children of Slaves (p173), the CIA unclassified documents about it. The Loyal League existed and was made up of slaves who were also spies. It came about prior to the Emancipation Proclamation, perhaps as early as 1861, and could have been used for such purposes. There is no evidence, apart from Douglass’ account of his own meeting with Lincoln, that such a large meeting of black and white abolitionists ever happened. Regardless, it’s clear that the slaves, even without coaxing by the Federal government, were very good at passing along such information.

Speaking of Mrs. Stowe reminds me of how a Northern man put into my hands a copy of ‘Uncle Tom’s Cabin,’ and how I read it secretly at night. That was while the Civil War was still going on.

The Reconstruction Government

I wasn’t a member of the Constitutional Committee that met in Jackson, the state capital, in 1868, to draft a new constitution for Mississippi, but I helped elect some of the members to that convention.

It was the first legislative body in Mississippi in which Negroes took part — think of that, in a state which had a majority of Negroes! There were 74 [17] Negroes out of 100 delegates to that convention. Five of those Negroes were murdered within the next few years by reactionary white planters. 5The true number of black delegates in Mississippi’s 1868 Constitutional Convention was seventeen. The number given, 74, was likely a transcription error. (See Negro Year Book, ed. Monroe N. Work, p176 of the 1921-1922 edition.) There’s not enough information to prove or disprove the murder claims.

No wonder the plantation owners hated that convention, and hated the legislatures that followed it. No wonder the rich folks hate the memory of those legislatures to this very day! The convention made a new constitution, the first in the history of the state under which poor people, white and Negro, had any rights.

Before that time, only the plantation owners could hold office in the state. By the new constitution, there was to be no property qualifications for holding office or for voting.

The new constitution of our state stopped all the discrimination against the Negroes to travel, in hotel accommodations, in the right to give testimony in court, in the right to vote and serve on juries. The poor whites who sat in the convention favored these measures as much as did the Negro delegates.

In the very first state legislature that was elected under that constitution there sat 40 negroes. Every one of the 40 was just out of slavery. 6Though this should be incredibly easy information to track down, I can’t find anything at all on it.

Working for the People

A Negro, Hiram Revels — I knew him very well — was elected to fill the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis, who had been president of the Confederacy. That was enough to make all the dead slaveowners turn over in their graves. 7Hiram Rhodes Revels did indeed serve in the United States Senate (from 1870-1871), but he filled Albert G. Brown’s seat, not Jefferson Davis’, whose was filled by Adelbert Ames (from 1870-1874). It’s fairly likely that the dead slaveowners were turning over in their graves nonetheless.

Hiram Rhodes Revels
Hiram Rhodes Revels

I myself was elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1874, being one of nine Negro Senators. I served four years. I cast the first vote for Blanche K. Bruce, a Negro who succeeded Hiram Revels in the Senate. Both Bruce and Revels made a brilliant showing in Congress. 8The former Confederate general-turn white Republican, James L. Alcorn, actually succeed Revels. Bruce served succeeded Ames’ successor, Henry R. Pease, and served along side Alcorn and Lucius Q. C. Lamar.

One of the first things we did in that legislature was to take steps to wipe out the state debt. There was a lot of talk among the plantation owners about our ‘extravagance,’ and people even today try to discredit our rule at that time by saying that we spent money right and left, wasting the state’s resources. As a matter of fact, the tax rate in Mississippi was less than nine mils on the dollar, and one-fifth of the total we collected was for schools.

We issued money which became known as ‘Alcorn money,’ after the Republican governor, J.L. Alcorn. We retired it at 25 percent each year until every dollar of debt the state owed was wiped out. Out of that money we built roads and schools and hospitals, trained teachers, kept the state running.

Our legislature also enacted the Civil Rights Bill that Congress passed. That bill gave equal rights in all fields to every person in the state, regardless of race, creed, color, or previous condition of servitude. But the Supreme Court which was with the slave owners and against us, threw out the national Civil Rights Bill, and that wiped ours out too.

The First Free School

I taught the first public school in Mississippi. We held our sessions under a shade tree, and later in a cabin, and still later in an old abandoned church.

The state had no teachers, and we brought in teachers from the North, men and women, white and Negro. The rich whites ostracized these Northern teachers, and tried to make their life hell for them. They called the Northern teachers carpetbaggers, as they did everyone from the North who treated Negroes on a man-to-man basis.

Before the Civil War there wasn’t a free school in the state, but under the Reconstruction government, we built them in every country, 40 [4?] in Marshall County alone. 9This is, again, probably an error in transcription. Perhaps it was four. We paid to have every child, Negro and white, schooled equally. Today, they’ve cut down on the educational program, and discriminated against the Negro children, so that out of every educational dollar, the Negro child gets only 30 cents.

I became a trustee of the State Normal School. We paid off every debt we contracted, and when I turned in my financial report in 1874, there was $150 left in the treasury. I helped supervise the budgets for other higher schools and by careful accounting saved the state more than $30,000.

We had Negroes in many responsible positions. A Negro was lieutenant governor — his name was Alex Davis — and Negroes also filled the offices of Secretary of State, Supernintendent of Public Instruction, and Commissioner of Immigration. 10Alexander K. Davis was Lieutenant Governor from 1871-1876. James Lynch, Hiram Revels, and H.C. Carter were Secretaries of State from 1869-1874.

Organizing Against the Ku Klux Klan

I helped to organize the Negro volunteer militia, which was needed to keep the common people on top and fight off the organized attacks of the landlord and former slave owners. We drilled frequently — and how the rich folks hated to see us, armed and ready to defend ourselves and our elected government!

Our militia helped fight off the Klan which was organized by the old slaveowners to try to make us slaves again in all but name.

I had a couple of narrow escapes from the Klan myself. When I began to teach school, the plantation owners said: ‘That Albright is a dangerous nigger. He’s a detriment to the state.’ One day I got a warning from a friend that I’d better sleep away from home. I took the hint. Sure enough, that night the Klan came to the house and asked for me. My sister said she didn’t know where I was.

Let me tell you also the story of a friend of mine by the name of Zeke House. Zeke House was a Negro mail carrier. One day, while he was carrying the mail from Holly Springs to Waterford, the Klan seized him and murdered him in the woods, and left him in a ditch. We found his body days later. That was in 1874.

Another friend of mine, Charles Caldwell, who was a captain of the Negro militia and a member of the Mississippi Senate, was murdered by the Klan also.

The rich people regained control over Mississippi with the help of the Klan. Unfortunately, they got many of the poor whites on their side. The poor white people felt that their interests lay with the Negroes — for the first time they had voting rights, and schools for their children. But the landlords kept poisoning their minds, saying ‘You’re voting with niggers. You’re lining up with niggers.’ The landlords split many of them away from their own best interests.

Do you suppose that at my age I can’t tell the difference between a Lincoln Republican and a Landon Republican? Look at all the rich Democrats who’ve jumped out of the Democratic Party into the Republicans! The Republican Party has turned against the common fellow, and I’ve turned against the Republican Party.

The original transcript, which I edited only slightly, can be found here.
More information about the interview process and project can be found here.

References   [ + ]

Has always had a love for history and the Civil War. During the 150th anniversary of the war, writing the Civil War Daily Gazette blog, which published daily for nearly five years. Wishing to continue the exploration, following the Charleston murders in 2015, and the activism around removing the Confederate Battle Flag, decided to dig a little deeper into the causes and repercussions of the War.