Francis L. Cardozo was the first African-American elected to state office. (Google Images)
Francis L. Cardozo was the first African-American elected to state office. (Google Images)

“[W]e have been cheated out of our rights for two centuries, and . . . I want to fix them in the Constitution in such a way that no lawyer, however cunning or astute, can possibly misinterpret the meaning. If we do not do so, we deserve to be, and will be, cheated again. Nearly all the white inhabitants of the State are ready at any moment to deprive us of our rights, and not a loop-hole should be left that would permit them to do it constitutionally.”Francis L. Cardozo, clergyman, politician, educator and the first African American to hold a statewide office in the United States

Francis Lewis Cardoza

Francis Lewis Cardozo was born February 1, 1836 in Charleston, South Carolina. Francis Cardozo was the son of a free black woman, Lydia Weston, and a Portuguese-Jewish man, Isaac Cardozo, who worked at the custom house (building housing government offices).

Cardozo attended schools for free blacks and worked as a carpenter and a shipbuilder. In 1858, he graduated from the University of Glasgow in Scotland and in 1864 was ordained a Presbyterian minister. In 1865, Cardozo became superintendent of an American Missionary Association school which he turned into Avery Normal Institute in Charleston, SC. Cardozo was a delegate to the 1868 South Carolina constitutional convention and as chair of the education committee advocated for integrated public schools. Also that year, he was elected South Carolina Secretary of State, making him the first African American to hold a statewide office in the U.S. In that position, he reformed the South Carolina Land Commission which distributed land to formerly enslaved residents. In 1872, he was elected state treasurer, a position he held until 1877.

Cardozo’s tenure was not any easy one as he had to contend with some legislators who unsuccessfully tried to impeach him in 1874 because of his unwillingness to go along with political corruption. He was reelected in 1874 and 1876. In the turbulent period following the election, Democrats regained the state government. After Governor Wade Hampton III demanded his resignation, Cardozo left office on May 1, 1877.

He was tried for conspiracy in November, 1877. Despite questionable evidence, he was found guilty and served over six months in jail. After federal election fraud charges were dropped against some Democrats, he was pardoned by Governor William Dunlap Simpson in 1879. Subsequently he moved to Washington, DC, accepting a position in the Treasury Department.

In 1884, Cardozo returned to education as a principal of the Colored Preparatory High School. He introduced a business curriculum and made it a leading school for African Americans. He served as principal until 1896. Cardozo Senior High School in northwest Washington, DC, is named in his honor.

A distant relative of former United States Supreme Court Justice Benjamin N. Cardozo, Francis Lewis Cardozo died on July 22, 1903.

The Akosua Report: Facts on The African Diaspora, is written by Akosua Lowery. Follow her on Twitter @AkosuaLowery.

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