Of the many tributes to U.S. Representative and civil rights leader John Lewis appearing since his death, particularly moving is the video clip Henry Louis Gates, Jr. posted from his “Finding Your Roots” television program, in which Lewis tearfully reacts to the sight of his great-great grandfather’s name on the 1867 Alabama voter registration rolls.
This reminder of the promises of Reconstruction amidst the current examination of the roots of systemic anti-Black racism prompts our curiosity about the political activities of the formerly enslaved persons and free Blacks living in Davenport in the years following the Civil War. One Albert Nuckols persistently exercised his right to participate in the political process, despite tepid support from the white community.
“Prince Albert” as Nuckols was known, arrived in Davenport in 1854 with his wife, daughter, and George L. Nickolls, son of his former master. Nuckols had just purchased his and his wife’s freedom from R.C. Nickolls while serving the family in Franklin County, Missouri. He worked as a bill-poster, whitewasher, and janitor from room 12 on the corner of Brady and 2nd Streets, the “Nickolls Block,” until his death in 1889. He was recognized as a leader of the African-American community, nearly always called upon to speak at the celebrations commemorating the Emancipation Proclamation. In 1865, he organized an event with a purpose: “Albert has determined upon a Festival at LeClaire Hall, on Monday evening January 1st, for the purpose of raising funds to alleviate, in a measure, the sufferings of his people.” (1)
Nuckols’ participation in civic life included experience with legal proceedings: a suit against him for payment of rent money was decided in his favor, and he won a replevin suit against another man in the August 1860 court term. (2) In 1868, he was part of an effort to defend the rights of four Blacks who had been refused service by the “aristocratic gentlemen of color” who owned the Delmonico restaurant on West 2nd St. (3) Nuckols, his friend J.H. Warwick of Davenport, and Alexander Clark of Muscatine were the first African Americans to serve as jurors in the state of Iowa.
It was the “Party of Lincoln,” the Republicans, that had Nuckols’ support. In September 1869, he was named a Scott County delegate to the state convention in Des Moines alongside fellow “colored citizen,” Henry Simons. Simons, a barber, was included without controversy, but when Captain J. W. Pearman suggested Nuckols in place of John Hornby, the committee on credentials’ leader George H. French reportedly “couldn’t swallow two n—-rs.” (4) Nuckols’ departure on the train to Des Moines was news, the Democrat calling him “…the acknowledged leader of the Republican colored delegation to the State Convention and the most polished gentleman and accomplished speaker of the entire delegation…” (5)
In July of 1872, Nuckols spoke passionately in support of Ulysses S. Grant’s second term as President to an assembly of Republicans. “Albert really made the best speech of the evening, and was cheered,” said the editors of the Democrat. The article disparaged the local party and its meeting, so they also characterized Nuckols’ invitation to speak as the Republicans’ “last resort.” (6)
Albert Nuckols was the only African American candidate for Representative at the Republican county convention (Scott) in September 1873, (7) and one of two (the other was his friend, hairdresser and wig-maker John H. Warwick) for Scott County Treasurer in October 1875. (8) Nuckols received no votes in the first contest, and he and Warwick received just one vote each in the second. Nevertheless, Nuckols remained active. He was present the following year at a gathering of “Independent” Republicans, traditional Democrats (many German immigrants) favoring Rutherford B. Hayes as President over their own party’s candidate, Samuel J. Tilden. While “[l]oud calls were made for Albert Nuckolls” to speak, meeting chairman and Der Demokrat editor Henry Lischer “…was evidently not prepared to go this far, and made arrangements to have an adjournment before Albert could have a chance to talk.” (9)
Albert Nuckols remained in the public eye through the late 1870s and 1880s: He managed and addressed various Emancipation celebrations, and in 1877 he debated another local “colored orator,” Emanuel Franklin, on the topic of Masonry versus Christianity in a much-anticipated and well-attended spectacle. (10). He was invited to the pulpit at the African Methodist Church in Davenport to deliver the “Central Attraction of the 19th Century,” his 1886 discourse (possibly printed) on the life of Jesus Christ. (11) He spoke in support of a Kirkwood governorship in Iowa later that same year. (12) Just months before his death, “‘Prince Albert’ Nuckels, the colored Republican, made a brief, forcible address on the enslaved condition of the Republican ballot at the South” at a county gathering, the “Republicans’ Last Charge,” according to the Daily Times of November 6, 1888.
Newspaper obituaries admired the way Albert Nuckols had led his life as a citizen of Davenport. He was “highly esteemed by all classes” said the Gazette; “…a well-known and popular citizen…a gentleman always in demeanor and in language,” said the Morning Democrat. Perhaps the most substantive praise was offered by the Weekly Republican, who noted that despite a lack of educational opportunities, Nuckols had “…instructed himself in a greater or less degree, and was posted on political and religious subjects.”
(posted by Katie)
1) Daily Davenport Democrat, December 29, 1865
2) Daily Democrat and News, August 20 and 22, 1860
3) Daily Davenport Democrat, November 9, 1868
4) Daily Davenport Democrat, June 5, 1869
5) Daily Davenport Democrat, June 10, 1869
6) Davenport Daily Democrat, July 27, 1872
7) Davenport Daily Democrat, September 10, 1873
8) Davenport Daily Democrat, October 19, 1875
9) Davenport Democrat, September 9, 1876
10) Davenport Democrat, January 6, 10, and 11, 1877
11) Davenport Democrat, March 16, 1886
12) Davenport Democrat, September 12, 1886
Davenport Democrat-Gazette, February 1, 1889
Davenport Morning Democrat, January 31, 1889Davenport Weekly Republican, February 2, 1889