Joseph B. Foraker, Reconstruction, and Civil Rights

Joseph B. Foraker lived on Cross Lane in Walnut Hills, in the block between Frederick Alms and Henry Pogue, across the street from the lot that would later be the Verona apartments. Like Frederick Alms he served in the Civil War, enlisting in 1862 – on his sixteenth birthday. He showed great leadership abilities, rising from sergeant to the rank of captain at the age of 19. Like Alms, he would join the Fred C. Jones Post of the Grand Army of the Republic in Walnut Hills. And, like Alms he would exhibit a life-long loyalty to the aim of the Civil War, to end slavery and to extend equal rights to free and freed African Americans.

After a late start in college, Foraker settled in to a successful law practice, and soon into politics. A force to be reckoned with in the Republican Party from the mid 1870’s, Foraker served as an elected judge in Cincinnati 1879-1882, then two terms as Governor of Ohio, 1886-1890, and two terms as US Senator, 1897-1909. In the chummy, industrializing world of the nineteenth century, he certainly practiced political patronage, well-paid lobbying when out of office, and favors for friends and family that would tar Republican politics at the national level under Grant. Yet like Grant, he strove to enforce the civil rights afforded by the thirteenth, fourteen and fifteenth amendments granting the vote and equal protection under the law to African American citizens, including opposition, armed if necessary, to the Ku Klux Klan. And like Grant, Foraker’s cozy relationships (his son, for example, would become the president of the Cincinnati Traction Company, the street railroad concession in the city) were part of an accepted system of “spoils”.

Ohio as a whole, and Cincinnati in particular, remained divided over questions of civil rights for African Americans during and after the Civil War, as it had been divided over questions of slavery and relations with the South before the War. At the end of the war the state legislature voted down a bill that would have granted voting rights to Black men, although the same legislature did vote to approve the fifteenth amendment to the constitution which granted those rights in Ohio and nationwide. Foraker (again like Alms) was a life-long member of the Young Men’s Blaine club, a pro-civil rights faction of the Republican Party in Cincinnati. The Club took its name from Maine Senator James Blaine, a perennial contender for president in the late nineteenth century, and the only nineteenth century Republican nominee who did not eventually accede to the office. (He lost to New York Democrat Grover Cleveland in 1884, in an election Foraker understood was thrown to the Democrats through the intimidation of African American voters in the South.)

Foraker was not only concerned with the voting rights of African Americans in the South. His autobiography noted:
“The right of suffrage was put to the front in our platform and in the campaign, not only because of its nature and the outrages that had been perpetrated in the South, but also because of similar outrages then recently perpetrated in Ohio, especially at the national election of 1884, when 152 colored voters of Cincinnati were arrested the night before election, thrown into prison and kept there without allowing them to communicate with anybody and without a mouthful of food or a drink of water in the meanwhile until after the polls were closed on the evening of election day.
“The police officer under whose management this outrage was committed was indicted, prosecuted and imprisoned for the offense. It was of such a bold and inexcusable character that it gave an impetus to the discussion of the right of suffrage greater than had ever before been known. It brought home to the voters of Ohio as never before the fact that to deprive the colored voters of the South of their right of suffrage meant Democratic domination for the nation, including Ohio and all the Northern States, as well as the States of the South.”
Foraker’s predecessor, and his opponent in his successful election of 1885, George Hoadly (also a resident of Walnut Hills), pardoned the police officer convicted of violating civil rights of the 152 African American voters.

Early in his first term, Governor Foraker accepted responsibility on behalf of the state of Ohio to maintain a few graveyards of Confederate soldiers, a move that critics feared showed sympathy with the “lost cause” of the South. The Civil War veteran dashed that idea when Democratic President Grover Cleveland – not himself a veteran – called for the Northern States to return captured Confederate battle flags. The Ohio governor responded with a widely publicized telegram: “No rebel flags will be surrendered while I am governor.”

Governor Foraker signed the Arnett laws which finally repealed the last of the Ohio “Black Laws” in 1887. (See an earlier post on Benjamin Arnett, who for a time served as pastor to Brown Chapel A. M. E. Church in Walnut Hills.) The most significant measure in that law integrated Ohio’s public schools – with mixed results in Cincinnati. Students of the thriving African American Gaines High School moved to the white public schools where they found little welcome; the Black teachers lost their prestigious positions. Within a few years, African American high school enrollment slowed to a trickle. The Elm Street Colored School in Walnut Hills would remain a Black operated alternative to the barely integrated white schools in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Governor Foraker also appoint a 29-year-old William Howard Taft to fill a court vacancy, launching the young man’s political career. The governor’s national prominence may be gauged by his picture, presented as one of a series of “Presidential Possibilities” in trading cards offered in tobacco packaging in 1888.

Foraker’s career in the US Senate between 1897 and 1909 included a stint as chair of the foreign relations committee during and after the Spanish-American War; he embraced the doctrine of manifest destiny and lent his name to legislation installing a largely US-appointed “self” government in Puerto Rico. His pro-business stance was increasingly out of step with the Progressive Era policies of Teddy Roosevelt and to a lesser extent William Howard Taft. Yet the incident that caused a complete break with those two Republican giants arose from the “Brownsville Affray” in 1906.

The “affray” – a name for a public fight that sent me to the dictionary – took place in the town of Brownsville, Texas. A unit of the famed Buffalo Soldiers, African American units (under white officers) with roots in the US Colored Troops from the Civil War and involved in the Indian Wars as long as required to “win the West” for the white man, found itself stationed outside of Brownsville. One morning there were reports of an attack the night before on a white woman in Brownsville; as such reports always did, this one raised suspicions about marauding Black men. Town officials asked the white officers to confine the Buffalo Soldiers to barracks that night; without telling the soldiers why, the officers complied and locked down all weapons. That night saw the affray in which shots were fired, a white man was killed and a white police officer wounded. Townspeople claimed the Black Soldiers were responsible, and produce cartridges like those used in army rifles to substantiate the claim. Despite testimony from the white officers that the men had not left their barracks, and a role call immediately after the firing was heard in which all soldiers and all weapons were accounted for, the army decided that some of the Buffalo soldiers must have been responsible, and demanded that the unit produce those individuals. When the whole unit protested that none of them were responsible, the investigators threatened to have the them all discharged with prejudice, stripping them of the pensions to which career soldiers were entitled. Incredibly, Secretary of War Taft and President Roosevelt agreed, and the soldiers were discharged en masse, without a single court martial, much less a conviction.

Foraker launched an investigation in the Senate to defend the African American soldiers. Lengthy forensic tests including microscopic examinations of the casings determined that they cartridges had in fact been fired from four of the guns from the unit, but that the cartridges were from batches of ammunition expended months earlier when the rifles were first issued – and that one of the guns was beyond a doubt in a locked trunk belonging to a soldier on furlough at the time of the affray. In short, old cartridges had been fished out of the trash. Despite this evidence, the collective sentence remained in place and the 176 soldiers – some with more than twenty years’ experience – were ruined. Foraker’s persistence infuriated both Roosevelt and Taft, and effectively ended his political career. He was not reelected in 1912.

Foraker’s efforts did lead to some relief. Congress ordered a military review in 1909, which resulted in an agreement in 1910 to review the discharges. Fewer than half of the 176 soldiers were contacted; not all of those contacted testified. Eventually the commission offered reenlistment to 14 men of whom 10 actually rejoined the army. Foraker’s 1915 autobiography included three chapters, nearly a hundred pages all together, documenting the controversy and his role in it.

A slightly happy postscript to the Brownsville affray was written in the early 1970’s. A history of the affair written in 1970 found its way to a congressman, who introduced legislation calling for another Defense Department review. The review ordered that all of the soldiers’ records should be updated to indicate honorable discharges from the army. Only two of the 167 discharged soldiers survived, one who had reenlisted and regained his pension, and one who had not. The latter was awarded a payment of $25,000, the only compensation ever awarded after Brownsville. Foraker did not, perhaps, simply squander his career in his efforts to win justice for African American soldiers.