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Scott, William Thomas (1839-1917)

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William Thomas Scott, also known as W.T. Scott, was a tavern/hotel owner, newspaper owner/editor, and politician in the latter half of the 19th century and the first decade of the 20th century.  He was the first African-American selected by the convention of a national political party as its candidate for the office of president of the United States. Scott was born free in Newark, Ohio, on April 28, 1839, to Lucy Scott (his father’s first name unknown).

Scott received barber training and worked on riverboats on the Ohio River before the Civil War. He married Nellie (died ca.1871 - last name unknown) in c.1861 in Cincinnati. In 1863, he enlisted in the Union Navy and served 18 months as steward on the USS Clara Dolsen at Cairo, Illinois. He married Lizzineky Jenkins (died ca. 1884) in Cairo in 1872.

From 1863 to 1901, Scott lived in Cairo and was a leader within local Republican political circles between 1870 and 1883, when he became a Democrat. His newspaper, the Cairo Gazette (1882- ca.1889), was the first black daily in the Midwest and claimed to be the first in the nation. He moved to East St. Louis, Illinois, in 1901 and then to Springfield, Illinois, in 1905 where he remained until his death. Scott was owner/editor of the East St. Louis Leader (1901-?) and the Springfield Leader (1905-?).

Scott’s business ventures that involved liquor, gambling, and vice kept him from obtaining political office, and instead he focused his efforts within party politics at the local and state levels. He championed the idea that African-Americans should receive patronage and government appointments in direct proportion to the number of votes cast in elections. He was critical of party bosses in both major political parties and identified himself as an Independent (Negrowump) at a time when nearly all black voters were Republicans.

By the time Scott declared himself a Democrat in 1883, he was considered the wealthiest African-American in southern Illinois. By the 1890s, he shifted his focus to the state and national politics where he obtained significant success. In 1890, he became president of the National Negro Democratic League (1888--  ) and the Negro Bureau within the National Democratic Party.  He served in various high offices in the Bureau until 1915. Scott also was president and founder of the National Negro Anti-Expansion, Anti-Imperialist, Anti-Trust and Anti-Lynch League (1899--  ). Scott by this time was known nationally as a superb organizer, a gifted speaker, and a person of wealth.

For a brief period, Scott was a prominent leader in the National Negro Liberty Party which was active at the state and national levels between 1904 and 1910. In 1904, that party’s convention, notable in part because it supported government pensions for ex-slaves, selected him as its candidate for president of the United States. His nomination led to a scandal, however, and his name was removed from the party’s ticket when he was arrested for failing to pay a fine for having operated a “disorderly house.”

William Thomas Scott died on January 23, 1917, in Springfield, Illinois.
 


Sources:
Roger D. Bridges, “Equality Deferred: Civil Rights for Illinois Blacks, 1865-1885,” Journal of the Illinois State Historical Society 74:2 (Summer 1981); Shirley J. Portwood, “African-American Politics and Community in Cairo and Vicinity, 1863-1900,” Illinois History Teacher 3:2 (1996); http://www.newspaperarchive.com and other newspaper databases.

Contributor:

University of Wisconsin-La Crosse

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