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Tunis Campbell, freeman of New Jersey
and Georgia.

 

One man's struggle.

 

 

          Born a free black in 1813 in Middlebrook, New Jersey, Tunis Campbell was educated in a white Episcopal school in New York until he reached eighteen.  He became a Missionary and a polished speaker on both religious and political topics.  He was an active participant in the free black convention movement, where men of color in the Northern states had participated in annual gatherings to try and create their own political agenda.  He became vehemently opposed to the cob’ movement, which advocated the migration of free blacks back to Africa, during the 1830s and 40s. 

          Campbell was fifty; married with four children, living in Manhattan and working as a baker, but despite his age and his family responsibilities, he volunteered for military service.  Although in the early days of the war the Union army barred men of color, he eventually was able to secure a military appointment and was ordered to South Carolina under General Rufus Saxton.  In August 1863, Campbell reported for duty at Port Royal, South Carolina.

          In January 1865, General Sherman ordered the coastal regions to reorganize with his famous Order No. 15.  Saxton designated Campbell “superintendent” of the Georgia Sea Islands.  Campbell then took loads of black refugees to Ossabaw, St. Catherine’s, and St. Simon’s for settlement.  After the Confederate surrender and Lincoln’s assassina­tion, everything was in confusion.  Emboldened by the chaos, Campbell advocated launched an independent black colony on St. Cather­ine’s Island, and forbade whites to enter.  He established an all-black government, headquartered on the estate of Button Gwinnett, and named himself governor.  Under the protection of a militia, he preached economic self-sufficiency.  By 1866 over four hundred freedmen and their families had been given parcels of forty acres, scattered around the entire island at St. Catherine’s and both children and adults attended schools.

          In January 1866, President Andrew Johnson fired Rufus Saxton and replaced him with Davis Tillson.  Tillson insisted that white men have access to St. Catherine’s Island, and imposed his authority by force.  White planters and leaseholders then moved in, reclaiming land from African American farmers and in return offered them labor contracts.  Campbell urged the freed people to resist, but Tillson won, and dis­missed him on charges of misconduct.

          Unfazed, Campbell spent some money of his own on a down pay­ment on the BelleVile Plantation in McIntosh County, Georgia.  In 1867 he organized the BelleVille Farmers Association, an independent black community of over a hundred freed people.

          Tunis Campbell was an imposing figure - over six feet tall, with a gray goatee - and was a spellbinding orator.  In 1867, he emerged as a leader in electoral politics and was appointed to the Board of Registration  being the single black man on the three-man board, for Georgia’s Second District.  He helped add 675 blacks and 128 whites to the McIntosh County voting rolls.  That same year, he was a delegate to an African Methodist Episcopal Convention and to a Georgia Educational Convention, and he represented his county at the Republican State Convention in Atlanta on July 4.  In November, he was elected (in an election which was boycotted by the white voters), to represent McIn­tosh County at the state’s constitutional convention.

          In the spring of 1868, he became one of only three blacks elected to serve in the Geor­gia Senate.  His first challenge came from a white senator who argued that the state constitution did not grant blacks the right to hold office.  Campbell lost that battle and along with his fellow black electees, was ex­pelled from office.  Campbell’s son, elected to serve in the Georgia House, was also turned out.

          By 1868 Campbell had settled his family in Darien, Georgia where local white planters perceived his presence as a threat.  Fan Butler wrote: “He. . . very soon became a leader of the negroes, over whom he ac­quired the most absolute control, and managed exactly as he pleased.” In a private letter dated March 1867, Fan Butler lodged a complaint against Campbell, accusing him of coercion and threatening her workers.  Campbell’s interest in promoting black autonomy was seen as a fearsome challenge even to white Republicans and Union authorities.

          Thwarted in statewide politics, Campbell decided to concentrate his efforts in McIntosh County.  He was elected magistrate and for several years adminis­tered justice with a high hand.  The harder authorities tried to counter Camp­bell’s influence, the greater his sway.  At one point local planters wanted to bribe him.  Planter unrest over the intractability of black labor was compounded by economic woes.  Harvest after harvest was plagued by natural disas­ter.  Drought came in 1867 and floods in 1868, damaging crops se­verely.

          But Republicans like Tunis Campbell had fallen on hard times.  Restored to his rightful seat in the Georgia Senate in January 1871, he was arrested the next summer.  To avoid jail time required the full complement of his powers of persuasion and intimidation.  In April 1872 be was indicted once again, charged with “false imprisonment” of a white citizen.  Despite this harassment, he continued his heroic struggles in the Georgia legislature to secure statutory protection for freed people and to strike down provisions for segregated education.  Election fraud in 1872 resulted in Campbell’s ouster from his Senate seat.  He contested the election, but by January 1874 he had given up the battle to overturn the rigged election results, and was concentrating on local politics in Darien.  The very same month marked his final downfall.  He had been dodging formal charges for years, but with the growing strength of white supremacists and with a conservative judge on the bench, he was convicted of the earlier false imprison­ment charge and sentenced to a year in prison.  He tried for months to overturn his conviction, but when his appeals ran out he was defeated.

          The state delivered the ultimate humiliation by sentencing the sixty-three-year-old to work on a chain gang, which has been described as “worse than slavery.”   Although a group of prominent black citizens tried to secure his early release, the governor denied their petition and he served his full year.  Once he was free, he was driven out of Georgia.