Tunis Gulic Campbell was born on April 1st, 1812; Submitted by Derek Richardson
Tunis Gulic Campbell was the eighth of ten children born in 1812 to free black parents in Middlebrook, New Jersey. His father John Campbell was a blacksmith. From age five to age ighteen, Tunis was able to attend an Episcopal school in Babylon, New York. He received considerably more education than most African Americans at that time. In 1832 Tunis founded and anti-colonization society and pledged “never to leave this country until every slave was free on American soil.” Campbell became a charismatic preacher and devoted abolitionist. He would eventually share the stage with Frederick Douglas on speaking tours.
To earn a living, Campbell worked as a hotel steward in Boston and New York City. In 1848 he authored book providing practical information for supervising and running a first-class hotel. This book was the first of its kind published in America. It emphasized the need for workers to be educated, well paid, prompt and competitive. A white employer described Campbell as “an unusually intelligent, dignified, attentive, and obliging man. He is, withal, a man of unblemished moral character, with a disposition to elevate the condition and character of persons of his color.”
In 1863 U.S. secretary of war Edwin Stanton commissioned the fifty-one-year-old Campbell to work in Port Royal, South Carolina, where former slaves were gathering under the protection of the U.S. Military. After Union General William T. Sherman captured Savannah in December 1864, on his march to the sea, and Congress set up the Freedmen’s Bureau in March 1865, Campbell was appointed to supervise land claims and resettlement on five Georgia islands. Campbell set up an independent government, headed by himself, and distributed land to the freedmen, following Sherman’s Special Order 15. He was briefly able to create a kind of black enclave in which black Georgians were able to do the sort of things that were inherent in the promise of Reconstruction including having access to schools and politics. Campbell believed that, with his help, Southern blacks could learn to be self-sufficient. His experiment was met with outrage by the islands’ former landowners.
In 1866, the black leader was ousted after President Johnson restored the land to Southern planters. Tunis Campbell responded to this setback by purchasing 1,250 acres at Belleville in McIntosh County. There he established an association of black landowners that divided parcels and profits from the land. Upon moving back to the Georgia mainland, Campbell decided to run for office in the first state elections which allowed black men to vote. He was elected as a State Senator with two thirds of the votes from his district. Tunis Campbell and his fellow black legislators soon became targets of a white majority in the Georgia legislature that was determined to expel them. Campbell was stripped of his seat he’d been elected too, but later reinstated with the backing of Federal Troops. As an early leader of the Republican Party in Georgia, Campbell worked to register voters and was subsequently elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention. He would also be elected as a justice of the peace and state senator from the Second Senatorial District (Liberty, McIntosh, and Tattnall counties).
In the legislature Campbell pushed for laws that would have mandated equal education, integrated jury boxes, homestead exemptions, abolishment of imprisonment for debt, open access to public facilities, and fair voting procedures. Tunis Campbell tried to promote laws that the Civil Rights movement one hundred years later would still be fighting for. As violence and intimidation increased, Campbell and 31 other black legislators were eventually forced out of the Georgia Senate by “Redeemer” forces. Campbell continued to serve locally as a justice of the peace. In that capacity he was prominent in defending the rights of black sailors on the ships docking in Darien. His vigilance on their behalf, and his willingness to fine and imprison the ships’ captains who abused them, incurred the wrath of some locals.
He would later spend nine months in a Savannah jail and a year as a state convict. Following his release in 1877, the sixty-five year-old Campbell left the state for Washington D.C., where he wrote a brief autobiography. As a justice of the peace, minister, and political boss, Campbell helped to organize a black power structure that protected freed people from abuses, whether against their bodies or in labor negotiations. One biographer wrote “Campbell is important because his vision and efforts gave the just-freed blacks time to cope with the realities and terms of freedom and his actions gave them confidence to resist oppression.” The black political machine erected by Tunis Campbell would last until 1907.
Submitted by Derek Richardson
Russell Duncan, Freedom’s Shore: Tunis Campbell and the Georgia Freedmen (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 1986)
Campbell, Tunis Gulic, Hotel Keepers, Head Waiters, and Housekeepers’ Guide. Boston: Coolidge and Wiley, 1848
Sufferings of the Rev. T. G. Campbell and Family in Georgia. Washington: Enterprise Publishing Co., 1877