One of the most radical developments of Reconstruction was the redistribution of land from wealthy former Confederate officials in South Carolina to about 8,000 of the state's landless families. Of all the people who played a role in this redistribution, the one most instrumental in its success is Francis Cardozo, South Carolina's first African-American state official.
Francis Louis Cardozo was born on February 1, 1837, in Charleston, South Carolina. His mother, whose name and occupation are unknown, was a free black, and his father was probably either Jacob N. Cardozo, editor of a Charleston newspaper, or Jacob's brother Isaac, who worked in the city's customshouse. He received an elementary education in a Charleston school for free blacks. At age 12, he was apprenticed to a carpenter, and at age 17 he became a journeyman. By 1858, he had saved enough money to pay his tuition at the University of Glasgow, Scotland. He graduated in 1861, then spent the next three years studying at the London School of Theology and at a Presbyterian seminary in Edinburgh. He returned to the United States in 1864 to become the pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut. That same year he married Catherine Howell, with whom he had six children. In 1865, he returned to Charleston to be the director of the American Missionary Association's Saxton School and to cofound a year later the Avery Normal Institute, both of which catered to black students.
Cardozo's political career began in 1864 when he attended a national convention of African Americans in Syracuse, New York, that called for the expansion of civil rights for blacks. After moving to Charleston, he became involved in the affairs of South Carolina's Republican Party. In 1865, as a delegate to the Colored Peoples' Convention in Charleston, he drafted a petition to the state legislature demanding civil rights for freedmen via the repeal of the so-called Black Codes, legislation designed to keep African Americans in a state of quasi slavery.
In 1868, Cardozo was a delegate to the state constitutional convention. He chaired the education committee that drew up the plans for the state's first system of public education. He also argued successfully against the imposition of poll taxes, literacy tests, or any other kind of legal impediment that might keep freedmen from voting. Indeed, his main purpose at the convention was to write a constitution that could not possibly be interpreted in such a way as to deny African Americans their civil and political rights.
Cardozo emerged from the convention as one of the most prominent black politicians in the state. Later that same year, he was offered the Republican nomination for lieutenant governor. He declined, preferring instead to run for secretary of state; when he won, he became South Carolina's first black state official. His major accomplishment in this position, which he held for four years, was to reorganize the state land commission. Under the direction of Robert DeLarge from 1868 to 1871, the commission had acquired more than 10,000 acres of land, which it divided into small tracts and sold to approximately 3,000 landless poor families, who had eight years to repay their mortgages. By 1871, however, it became common knowledge that DeLarge has misused his powers as director to divert state funds into the pockets of himself and a group of friendly investors. Cardozo took over direct control of the commission that same year. Unable to find any records whatsoever of DeLarge's transactions, he nevertheless was able to sort out who owed what to whom. More important, by the end of 1872 he had placed another 5,000 families on redistributed land.
In 1872, Cardozo was elected state treasurer. Over the next four years, he set about imposing order on the state's chaotic financial affairs. In the process, he disbursed a considerable amount of money to fund the state's public education system, which had floundered because of his white predecessors' reluctance to part with the necessary funds. The state's finances were so confused, however, that in 1875 his white opponents accused him of fraud and corruption. Reelected to office in 1876, he resigned the following year to stand trial on charges that he had paid interest on state bonds that had been issued fraudulently before he took office. Although it was never proved that he had benefited or participated in any way with the fraud, he was convicted and sentenced to two years in prison. He was pardoned by the governor before he could be jailed.
The year 1877 marked the end of Reconstruction, and with it came the departure of federal troops from South Carolina and other southern states. Once the troops were gone, nothing could stop whites from seizing control of the legislature and reversing the political and economic gains African Americans had made since 1865. In light of this development, Cardozo realized that his future was no longer in South Carolina. In 1878, he moved to Washington, D.C., where he went to work as a clerk in the Treasury Department. In 1884, he became principal of Washington's Colored Preparatory High School, and in 1891 he took over as principal of the M Street High School. He died in Washington on July 22, 1903. Cardozo Senior High School in northwest Washington, D.C., is named in his honor.
Holt, Thomas C. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Lamson, Peggy. The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction of South Carolina. New York: W. W. Norton, 1973.
McCarthy, Timothy P. "Cardozo, Francis Louis." In African American National Biography, vol. 2, edited by Henry Louis Gates, Jr., and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham. New York: Oxford University Press, 2008, pp. 154–156.
Text Citation (Chicago Manual of Style format):
Carey, Charles W., Jr., and Liz Sonneborn. "Cardozo, Francis." African-American Political Leaders, Revised Edition, A to Z of African Americans. New York: Facts On File, Inc., 2011. African-American History Online. Facts On File, Inc. http://www.fofweb.com/activelink2.asp?
ItemID=WE01&iPin=AAPL0029&SingleRecord=True (accessed July 1, 2015).
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