Clergyman, educator, politician. Cardozo was born in Charleston on January 1, 1836, to Lydia Weston, a free black woman, and Isaac Cardozo, a Jew who served as a weigher in the city’s customhouse. He attended schools for free blacks, then worked as a carpenter and shipbuilder before enrolling at the University of Glasgow in Scotland in 1858. He later studied at seminaries in Edinburgh and London and became an ordained Presbyterian minister. In 1864 he returned to the United States and became pastor of the Temple Street Congregational Church in New Haven, Connecticut. That same year he married Catherine Rowena Howell. They had six children. In 1865 Cardozo returned to Charleston as an agent of the American Missionary Association (AMA). On his arrival he replaced his brother, Thomas, as superintendent of the school established by the AMA for African Americans. Cardozo directed the transformation of the school into the Avery Normal Institute, which became an important training ground for black leaders in South Carolina.
Shortly after his return to South Carolina, Cardozo became involved in Reconstruction politics. As a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention, he served as chair of the education committee and advocated a statewide system of integrated public education. In 1868 he was elected secretary of state, becoming the first African American in the United States elected to statewide office. While in office, Cardozo oversaw and reformed the controversial South Carolina Land Commission, which distributed land to thousands of former slaves. Elected state treasurer in 1872, Cardozo drew praise from both Republican and Democratic newspapers for his honesty and scrupulous management of public funds. In 1874 a handful of legislators attempted to have Cardozo impeached after he refused to cooperate in their corruption schemes, but Cardozo successfully refuted the charges. Cardozo won reelection as state treasurer in 1874 and 1876, but his political career came to an end with the return of the Democrats to power. On April 14, 1877, Governor Wade Hampton III sent Cardozo a letter demanding that he vacate his office. Cardozo relented on May 1. Soon after, he was indicted for corruption as part of a systematic attempt by Democrats to destroy the reputation of the Republican Party and its black leaders. Cardozo was the highest-ranking target of the prosecutions. With his reputation for honesty, he demanded a trial, and in November 1877 he was tried for conspiracy to issue a fraudulent pay certificate. Despite the questionable evidence against him and Cardozo’s able defense, a jury of six blacks and six whites convicted Cardozo by an improper majority vote. He spent more than six months in jail before being pardoned in April 1879 by Governor William Simpson after federal election fraud charges against some white Democrats were dismissed.
Cardozo accepted a position in Washington, D.C., with the U.S. Treasury Department in 1878 and relocated to that city permanently after his pardon. In 1884 he left the treasury and began to teach in the public schools of Washington. As principal of the Colored Preparatory High School from 1884 to 1896 (later renamed the M Street High School), he introduced a business curriculum and made the institution the premier African American preparatory school in the nation. Cardozo died in Washington on July 22, 1903.
Burke, W. Lewis. “Post-Reconstruction Justice: The Prosecution and Trial of Francis Lewis Cardozo.” South Carolina Law Review 53 (winter 2002): 361–413.
———. “The Radical Law School: The University of South Carolina School of Law and Its African American Graduates, 1873–1877.” In At Freedom’s Door: African American Founding Fathers and Lawyers in Reconstruction South Carolina, edited by James Lowell Underwood and W. Lewis Burke, Jr. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2000.
———. “Reconstruction, Corruption, and the Redeemers’ Prosecution of Francis Lewis Cardozo.” American Nineteenth Century History 2 (autumn 2001): 67–106.
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Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Richardson, Joe. “Francis L. Cardozo: Black Educator during Reconstruction.” Journal of Negro Education 73 (winter 1979): 73–83.
Sweat, Edward F. “Francis L. Cardozo—Profile of Integrity in Reconstruction Politics.” Journal of Negro History 46 (October 1961): 217–32.