For as important to Mississippi as Charles Caldwell is, not much is known about his early life. A freed slave, he worked as a blacksmith in Clinton. His family included a brother, Sam, a wife, and a son named Charles Jr. Caldwell served on the Hinds County Board of Police and was elected to serve as a delegate at the Mississippi Constitutional Convention as well as a state senator from 1870-1875. He fought for the rights of freedmen both in the legislature and as a military commander, and his leadership helped his community combat a horrific period of racial violence.
Charles Caldwell served as a delegate to the 1868 “Black and Tan” Constitutional Convention of Mississippi. One of 16 African Americans (out of 100 total delegates), he served on the committee on Ordinance & Schedule and fought for property rights, debtor’s rights, and integrated schools. The meeting lasted 114 days, and the constitution was defeated.
To combat their recent losses in the Reconstruction period following the Civil War, the Democratic Party devised a plan to overthrow the Republican party. The “1875 Mississippi Plan” would make organized threats of violence and suppress the black vote.
The plan was dual pronged:
Governor Adelbert Ames appealed to President Ulysses S. Grant to send federal troops to put down the White Line insurrection causing the violence. He refused. As a result, Ames ordered Caldwell to organize a state militia. He organized and commanded the group Company A, 2nd Regiment Mississippi Infantry.
Caldwell was given the mission to collect arms waiting for them at Edwards’ Depot, 30 miles west of Jackson. On October 9, 1875, Caldwell lead 102 black men for a day and a half march to Bolton. They arrived at Edwards’ Depot and gathered the arm. An additional 98 men joined them. They picked up yet another company in Brownsville on the way back, bringing the number of troops to 300, two-thirds of them armed.
While Caldwell’s march effectively suppressed the whites, he wanted to continue the militia to preserve the peace through election day, November 2nd. However, the Democratic Party’s command filed a restraining order, stopping the state auditor from issuing funds to support Caldwell’s militia. Faced with the ruling, the governor ordered the militia to disarm and disband.
The Democratic leaders entered into a formal peace treaty with the governor that pledged both parties to abstain from violence, fraud, and intimidation. Governor Ames agreed to demobilize the militia. Caldwell wrote to Ames that the treaty was a farce:
“The intimidation and threatening of colored voters continues uninterrupted, and with as much system, determined purpose, and combination of effort as it were a legitimate means of canvassing… the peace agreement is held in utter contempt and only serves as a cover for perpetrating the very wrongs it was intended to prevent. In behalf of the people whom I represent, I appeal to your excellency for the protection which the laws of the State guarantee to every citizen regardless of party or race.”
Armed whites appeared at the polls on election day, intimidating black voters. The conservative Democrats were swept into office.
On December 25th, a man named Buck Cabell invited Charles Caldwell into Chilton’s store (112 W. Leake Street) on Leake and Jefferson Streets in Olde Towne. He offered him a drink. But, it was an ambush. The men poured their drinks, lifted their glasses, and toasted. The clink of the glasses was the signal; from outside the window, someone shot Charles Caldwell.
Charles Caldwell did not immediately die. He called out for help while he bled, but the many men standing around did not help him. Finally, Preacher Nelson went to the cellar door and carried him to the street. He asked to see his wife and children before he died, but they would not allow it. Before they riddled him with bullets, he stood up and said, “Remember when you kill me, you kill a gentleman and a brave man. Never say you killed a coward. I want you to remember it when I am gone.”
Caldwell’s brother, Sam, rode up to the scene, and they killed him, too.