Tunis Campbell—the wild man politician of the Reconstruction

Tunis Campbell wrote a book before the war.

Accomplished African Americans like Virgil and Amanda who possessed specialized skills at the end of the Civil War must have felt incredibly overwhelmed at the work that lay before them in helping the enslaved to a better life.  Still, they plunged wholeheartedly into doing that work. Tunis Campbell, one of the most prominent politicians in Georgia at dawn of Reconstruction, was one of them.  He did his work with a flair and a somewhat reckless regard for the law, choosing to focus instead on what was morally right to him. He was an early example of civil disobedience from an African American.

Born in New Jersey, he was trained as a missionary for Africa.  In the wake of the Civil War, he was appointed as a agent for the Freedman’s Bureau in Georgia.  He was fired a year later, which tells me something about Campbell—he came to make radical change and folks didn’t like that.

He moved to a different part of Georgia,  and found a mostly black constituency in Darien in McIntosh County. and got himself elected justice of the peace (a much more powerful position then) and started to make some changes.  Edmund Drago explains it in Black Politicians and Reconstruction in Georgia, Campbell “exercised his powers arbitrarily and totally to the benefit of blacks.” Black crew members jumped ship from a British ship near Darien.  Campbell had the captain arrested and ordered him to pay court costs and the sailors’ wages. The problem was–Campbell had no jurisdiction.  He didn’t care.  He was the law in that town.

He got himself elected to the state legislature, but that didn’t stop the larger powers that be from trying to get rid of him.  They tried to bribe him, but he wouldn’t be bribed. They sought to have him arrested over the another unjust arrest of a white man.  That arrest stuck. In 1876, he was jailed for malfeasance in office.  He served about a year in a labor camp before he left Georgia for good.  He died in 1891 in Boston, Massachusetts.

It may be hard to see Campbell as a Union army chaplain and minister, but that was how he served.  Becoming a minister was one of the only ways a free African American man  could work with dignity and purpose. Ultimately, Campbell had had enough and left Georgia, but he provided an example to others of the formerly enslaved that they should not give up the fight for their rights and for equal opportunities.  Virgil represents the line between Tunis Campbell’s “radical” style and Henry McNeal Turner’s more sedate and patient approaches. Radical Reconstruction in Georgia needed all kinds of people to begin to pry open the closed doors of opportunity to everyone.

 

 

3 thoughts on “Tunis Campbell—the wild man politician of the Reconstruction

  1. When I read an account of a Black Man being reckless with the law, I simply have to guffaw. White men never played within the system. Good on him for doing what was necessary to help his people, try to bounce back from the greatest looting of human being of all times.

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