Legislator, congressman. Details of Elliott’s early life are uncertain. His modern biographer, Peggy Lamson, believes that he was born on August 11, 1842, in Liverpool, England, of unknown West Indian parents. Contemporary accounts state that he was born in Boston, educated at High Holborn Academy in London, and graduated from Eton College in 1859, although no evidence survives to corroborate these claims. It does seem likely that he did enjoy a substantial degree of formal education, since Elliott was universally acknowledged to be highly literate and learned. In 1867 Elliott moved from Boston to Charleston, South Carolina, where he accepted a position as an associate editor of a black-owned Republican newspaper, the South Carolina Leader. Around 1870 he is believed to have married Grace Lee Rollin, a member of a distinguished Charleston free black family. The couple had no children.
In South Carolina, Elliott’s education and ability quickly placed him among the most influential African Americans in the state. In 1868 Elliott, Jonathan J. Wright, and William Whipper were the first African Americans admitted to the South Carolina Bar. Elliott soon after turned to politics. He was an adept orator and first entered the political spotlight as a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention. That same year he was an unsuccessful candidate for lieutenant governor but was elected to the state House of Representatives from Barnwell County. Serving in the House from 1868 to 1870, Elliott chaired the committee on railroads and sat on the committee on privileges and elections. His political skills were apparent to allies and opponents alike, with one conservative newspaper reporter describing Elliott as “the ablest negro in South Carolina.” He was chosen state assistant adjutant general in 1869, in which role he was responsible for organizing the militia, but he resigned in December 1870 in protest over Republican Party corruption. Also in 1869 Elliott was elected president of a state labor convention, which sought to improve working conditions among the state’s newly emancipated black laborers.
In 1870 Elliott defeated a white candidate for his first of two terms in Congress. The first full-blooded man of color elected to Congress, Elliott took his seat in the U.S. House of Representatives on March 4, 1871. He employed his oratorical skills to condemn the Ku Klux Klan in South Carolina and to champion civil rights for African Americans. He resigned from Congress in 1874 and returned to the South Carolina General Assembly, where he served as Speaker of the House from 1874 to 1876.
Elliott’s political career ended following the controversial election of 1876 and the return of the Democratic Party to power in South Carolina. He spent most of his later years as an outspoken, controversial Republican Party leader frustrated at the loss of federal support for black civil rights. Following a series of federal patronage positions in South Carolina and Louisiana, and failed law practices, Elliott died penniless in New Orleans of malarial fever on August 9, 1884. He was buried in that city’s St. Louis Cemetery Number 2.
Holt, Thomas C. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977. Lamson, Peggy. The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina. New York: Norton, 1973. Williamson, Joel. After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina during Reconstruction, 1861–1877. Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1965.