Q&A : Author Neil Kinghan on his biography of Reconstruction leader Francis Cardozo

Francis Lewis Cardozo is not the first person who comes to mind when the topic of Reconstruction comes up. But he was an essential figure during that period, a man of great accomplishment and integrity, a leader worth knowing about.

So U.K.-based historian Neil Kinghan decided to write a book, the first full-length academic biography of this impressive educator and politician, called “A Brief Moment in the Sun: Francis Cardozo and Reconstruction in South Carolina” and part of LSU Press’ Southern Biography Series.

Kinghan will be in Charleston to discuss his book at 6 p.m. Wednesday, Sept. 20, in room 127 of the Addlestone Library (first floor, northwest corner). The free book talk is sponsored by the College of Charleston Friends of the Library and open to all.

In anticipation of Kinghan’s visit, The Post and Courier asked him a few questions about Cardozo.

Q: Francis Cardozo was the son of a Sephardic Jewish father and a free Black mother. It seems the family was relatively privileged. What was life in Charleston like for the Cardozos?

A: Francis Cardozo grew up in Charleston’s pre-war free Black community, a secure and stable environment until threatened by the racial tensions that led to the Civil War. His African American mother, Lydia Weston, freed from slavery, worked as a seamstress, his White Jewish father Isaac Cardozo as a weigher in the Custom House, until his death in 1855.

Francis’ parents were not married but their children took their father’s name and lived in houses leased to Lydia by Isaac. The family apparently lived in some comfort, to judge by the daguerreotype photograph of Francis, age 4, reprinted in the book. The children followed their mother’s Presbyterian religion; their father’s Jewish congregation, Beth Elohim, was closed to non-White members. Francis and his two brothers and sister were educated at schools for free Black children and at home by their father and uncle.

Q: Francis Cardozo’s educational trajectory was impressive. He attended a private school in Charleston for Black students, studied at the University of Glasgow, then attended seminary in Edinburgh and London, becoming a Presbyterian minister. His return to the U.S. coincided with the end of the Civil War. He became active in the American Missionary Association, came home to Charleston, and started a career as an educator. Tell me about this pre-politics period of Cardozo’s life and his emphasis on education.

Francis Cardozo

A: Education was of the greatest importance to Francis Cardozo, from his childhood in Charleston, through his university in Glasgow, Scotland, to his schools in Charleston and Washington, D.C. His guiding belief throughout his life was that Black children would do as well as White if given the chance. He lived his belief as a prize-winning African American student in the White university of Glasgow. He returned to New Haven, met and married his wife Catherine there in 1864.

Cardozo was principal of the Saxton School for African American children in Charleston from 1865 to 1868, funded by the American Missionary Association. It was recognized as one of the best schools in the city by Black families and White political leaders alike. Its success transformed White attitudes to Black education. The Avery Normal School, providing training for teachers, grew out of the Saxton School, and lives on today as the Avery Institute.

Q: Then, just a few years later, Cardozo immersed himself in Reconstruction politics, making a name for himself (though few today know about him). Why was he so important?

A: Cardozo’s achievements in his school established his reputation in the city, and he played a major part in the 1868 convention that wrote a new constitution for South Carolina, granting African American men the vote for the first time. He won election as the Republican secretary of state in April 1868, the first African American elected to statewide office in the United States.

He served as secretary of state and state treasurer in the Republican governments between 1868 and 1877. He led the state’s Land Commission to become the most successful organization of land redistribution in the post-war South and secured the funding of the state’s education system. He was famously honest when most of his colleagues were not, “the faithful one among the faithless many,” according to the Democratic Columbia Daily Phoenix.

For that reason, the incoming Democratic administration in 1877 prosecuted, convicted and imprisoned him for bribery in a rigged trial. They destroyed his reputation and that of Reconstruction for the next 80 years.

Q: Then came his career in D.C. What did he do there?

A: Cardozo was pardoned in a deal between the Democratic governor of South Carolina and Republican President Rutherford B. Hayes in 1879 and moved to Washington. He worked for five years in the Treasury Department, an ironic appointment for a man convicted of bribery, then as principal of the Colored High School in the city, from 1884. The school became M Street High School and grew under Cardozo’s leadership into “the best high school, White or Black, in the nation’s capital.”

The school remains a famous name in African American history. It continues today as the Francis L. Cardozo Education Campus, a major school in Washington. His name is commemorated in the Cardozo Metro Station next to the school.

Q: Describe his late career and the last years of his life? How did he cope with Jim Crow?

A: Jim Crow spread discrimination and racial violence across the South at the end of the 19th century, infecting Washington in the process. Cardozo’s own life was relatively insulated within Washington’s Black community. He ran schools for African American children, the M Street School until 1896, then two elementary schools until his death in 1903.

Cardozo’s working life ended as it began, with education, and his continuing commitment to securing the best opportunities for African American children. He was personally successful as an educator and as a political leader. My book aims to restore his reputation to its rightful place in American history.

Q: What were the challenges and rewards of writing “A Brief Moment in the Sun”?

A: I enjoyed both the research and the writing of the book. I was very fortunate to receive help and support from academics in the U.K. and the U.S., particularly from Lewis Burke of the University of South Carolina, Dale Rosengarten and Harlan Greene of the College of Charleston and Glenda Gilmore of Yale University.

I found the Library of Congress’ online database of historical newspapers, Chronicling America, a wonderful resource. It is miraculous that I can read the Charleston Daily News from 1868 in my sitting room in the English countryside. I also found it a great pleasure to have to travel regularly to Columbia and Charleston, to pursue my research!

My challenges mainly came from the relative shortage of personal papers for Cardozo and other African American politicians. Most White historians and archivists until the 1960s chose not to preserve the papers of Black political leaders alongside their White compatriots. That made it all the more rewarding to overcome the challenges in writing this book.

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