Jeremiah Haralson (1846-1916) was a clergyman, natural politician, powerful orator, and talented debater who served in the Alabama House of Representatives (1870-1872), State Senate (1872-1874) and U.S. Congress (March 4, 1875-March 3, 1877). He was the third African American Republican congressman from Alabama, combated a Democratic majority in the House of Representatives, and fought against Jim Crow politics in the South during Reconstruction. As a result of his contentious relationship with Republicans, his contemporaries described him as uncompromising, irritating, and bold.
Haralson was born into slavery on a plantation in Muscogee County near Columbus, Georgia, on April 1, 1846, but little is known about his early life. During childhood, he was sold twice before John Haralson, a lawyer from Selma, Dallas County, purchased him in 1859. Alabama ratified the 13th Amendment on December 2, 1865, which mandated Haralson's freedom. He taught himself to read and write and worked as a farmer, minister, and influential civic leader.
In 1867, Haralson began his political career as a Democrat, which reportedly stemmed from a loyalty to his former owner and uncertainty regarding the future of the Republican Party in the South. He campaigned for Democratic presidential candidate Horatio Seymour in 1868 but was accused by former Confederates and Democratic officials of being insincere in his support and secretly swaying support to Republicans. He also made an unsuccessful bid for Congress as a Democrat in 1868, despite being too young to meet the constitutional age requirement. By 1869, Haralson had allied himself with the Republican Party after Democrats aligned themselves with former Confederates and failed to attract the support of freedmen. He told a meeting of prominent African American politicians in New Orleans that if he were forced to choose between Democrats and Republicans, he would choose the latter, given their support for African American suffrage and Emancipation. Yet, the following year he was elected as an Independent to the Alabama House of Representatives, thus beginning a career-long tendency to run as a third-party candidate.
In 1870, Haralson married Ellen Norwood, and the couple had a son, Henry, who later attended Tuskegee University. Haralson was elected to preside over the Republican Party's First District convention, which nominated Benjamin S. Turner as the first African American from Alabama to serve in Congress. In January 1871, he was elected president of the Alabama Negro Labor Union, serving until 1873. In 1872, he was elected as a Republican to the Alabama State Senate for the 21st District and assisted in shepherding a civil rights bill through the Senate. Local media described him as perhaps the most influential freedman in the legislature.
In 1874, Haralson received the Republican nomination in Alabama's First District, formerly held by Turner and which included his hometown of Selma. He won the general election with 54 percent of the vote, but incumbent liberal Republican Frederick Bromberg contested the victory. On April 18, 1876, Democratic Chairman John Harris of Virginia delivered the decision of the Committee on Elections, which uncovered evidence of fraud, and the committee unanimously rejected Bromberg's challenge and awarded Haralson the seat, although some of his votes were declared invalid as well. He went on to serve on the Committee on Public Expenditures of the 44th Congress and introduced legislation to use proceeds from the sale of public lands for education. Haralson also presented a petition from the citizens of Mobile requesting compensation for the use of a medical college and supplies by officers of the Freedmen's Bureau, however neither these nor four other proposed bills passed. Generally, Haralson supported the policies of Pres. Ulysses Grant, especially the Civil Rights Act of 1875, and leveraged his African American heritage to gain political support from his constituents, who feared the possibility of a southern race war.
Haralson had a contentious relationship with his fellow Republicans. Alabama's "carpetbagger" Republicans viewed Haralson with suspicion because of his former Democratic ties and accused him of accepting a $50 bribe from railroad officials and stealing a $100 bale of cotton. However, the charges were not substantiated and had little impact on Haralson's political career. Meanwhile, he accused white Republicans of conspiring against African American voters and alienated Radical Republicans by criticizing the use of federal soldiers to maintain orderly voting in the South, supporting general amnesty for former Confederates, and favoring strict segregation in public schools. They likewise objected to his friendships with Democrats such as Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy, Rep. Lucius Q. C. Lamar of Mississippi, and Georgia Senator and later governor John B. Gordon.
In 1876, the Alabama state legislature redrew Haralson's district, which moved Selma from the First to the Fourth District and increased the African American electorate to nearly 65 percent. Freeborn African American candidate James Rapier challenged Haralson in the 1876 primary for Alabama's Fourth District and won. As a result, Haralson reentered the general election as an Independent and began a decade-long attempt to win back his congressional seat. Democrat Charles M. Shelley, a former Confederate general, won the seat with 38 percent of the vote as a result of the split among Republican voters. Haralson contested the election results and submitted an official complaint to the Committee on Elections on April 16, 1878, to no avail.
Haralson received the Republican nomination for his former seat in 1878 but had too little support from African Americans. Democratic incumbent Shelley won reelection with 55 percent of the vote, but Haralson asserted that thousands of votes were not counted and contested the election. Shelley's supporters attempted to have Haralson and his lawyer arrested, and while traveling between Montgomery and Selma, he was attacked by an armed mob and ordered to leave the state. Haralson fled to the District of Columbia and submitted a written complaint to the Congressional Record regarding the incident. The letter was published, but the Committee on Elections never ruled on Haralson's case.
In 1879, Pres. Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Haralson as a clerk at Baltimore's federal customs house. He later became a clerk
at the Department of the Interior and then worked at the Pension Bureau in Washington, D.C., from 1882 to 1884. He ran as
Independent Republican in his final bid for Congress in 1884 but overwhelmingly lost the election to Democrat Alexander Davidson.
Haralson briefly lived in Louisiana before settling in Arkansas as a pension agent. On December 21, 1894, he was sentenced
to ten years in the penitentiary at Fort Smith, Arkansas, for pension fraud. He remained in Arkansas until at least 1904 and
returned to Selma in 1912. He drifted through Texas and Oklahoma before settling in Colorado, where he became a coal miner at the age of 70. Haralson was reportedly killed and eaten by wild animals while hunting in Denver in 1916, but no
death certificate was ever filed.
Bailey, Richard. They Too Call Alabama Home: African American Profiles, 1800-1999. Montgomery: Pyramid Publishing, 1999.
Clay, William L. Just Permanent Interests: Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1991. New York: Amistad Press, 1992.
Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Freedman, Eric, and Stephen A. Jones. African Americans in Congress: A Documentary History. Washington D.C.: CQ Press, 2008.
Middleton, Stephen, ed. Black Congressmen During Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook. Westport: Praeger, 2002.
Brett J. Derbes
Published June 26, 2012
Last updated June 26, 2012