During Reconstruction, numerous African Americans living in the South not only participated in the political process through voting but also ran for, and were elected to, public office. Tunis G. Campbell was a northern black abolitionist who moved to the Sea Islands off the coast of Georgia to help freedpeople in the work of Reconstruction. He made Georgia his home, taking a job with the Freedmen's Bureau.

An ardent Republican, he participated in the political revolution that Reconstruction launched. Following the passage of the 1867 Reconstruction Act, he actively registered blacks to vote and gave speeches on behalf of the Republicans. He was elected a delegate to the state's constitutional convention, served as a justice of the peace, and was elected to the Georgia State Senate.

He remained committed to protecting the freedpeople's rights from abuses by white planters and officials. As an elected official, he worked for equal rights and against discrimination. He also made sure that blacks and whites would serve in equal numbers on juries. It was said that the former slaves viewed Campbell as "the champion of their rights and the bearer of their burden."

Local whites, however, did not appreciate his efforts as they saw him as a "constant annoyance." When white Democrats captured control of the state government of Georgia, they took revenge on Campbell. They threw him out of the state senate, convicted him on trumped up charges, and sentenced him to work on a convict chain gang in 1876. After being released from prison, he continued his political work before finally leaving Georgia permanently and settling in Boston, where he died in 1891.

Tunis Campbell's rise and fall resembled, in many ways, the rise and fall of black political influence in the South. Without political rights, freedpeople, like Campbell, were at the mercy of white planters and politicians, who did everything they could to deny equality to African Americans.

-- by Eric Arnesen