Commemorate Black History Month With The Sons of Confederate Veterans!
One who would some day more then deserve a chapter in Black History Month, Bush was born Nov 14, 1856 in Moscow TN. Both he and his mother arrived in Little Rock in 1862 with their owner to escape Federal invasion.
John Bush grew into a street savvy orphan until Col R C Tracy, a sympathetic white man forced him to enter a public school for blacks in 1869. He became an energetic student and to quote his teacher: “he seemed to eat up his work.” To support his education and eventually himself, he took a job as a brick moulder.
While an undergrad, he became involved in Republican Party politics and in 1875 entered less strenuous employment as a postal clerk in the railway service of Arkansas. From then on he chose a career in politics and business. He was passed over for a higher income position, but persisted in working nightshifts for the postal service. Later he would accept a second job as principal of Little Rock’s Capitol Hill School for blacks.
So, with income from two jobs, he seriously invested in real estate where he determined he could afford it.
His reputation for hard work and honesty seemed to move him up on the black social ladder, but when he married Cora Winfrey, the daughter of a high ranking member of the upper class, his position in the black elite group was solidified.
Also his diligence and integrity gradually gained him influence in the Republican Party. At a very young age he became active in that party because it took on issues relevant to the black community and because of the opportunities it offered blacks for advancement in the ranks. But Bush relished the intrigues of politics and battle. He once confided to a friend; “I am a politician first for the interest of my race, secondly, because I like it.”
He wasn’t lacking in loyalty either. On one occasion in 1882, the Greenback Party nominated him to a high level county position. Bush refused the nomination because his party nominated a white for the position and he declined to use his influence in a way that would weaken Republican chances of winning public office against the powerful Democrats who controlled state government.
In the late 1880’s former US Cavalry officer now high ranking Party official, Powell Clayton asked for Bush’s help in diffusing a revolt against the leadership by dissatisfied Republicans. Bush agreed and completed the task. Clayton offered cash payment. Bush wisely refused in favor of Clayton’s promise of lifelong influence. The Bush-Clayton alliance powerfully served both men and resulted in Bush’s 1898 appointment by President William McKinley to the prestigious position of Receiver of US Lands. He held this appointment until 1912 when Democratic President Woodrow Wilson took office.
It must be said John Bush’s tenure was never tarnished by scandal or charges of corruption. He thought his entire race of people was on trial and that he had to succeed at all costs. But despite his spotless record as Receiver of Public Lands in Little Rock, he had to fight constantly and draw upon all his political skills and powerful friends to maintain his position. At one point, Ambassador to Mexico, Powell Clayton, made a special trip to Washington DC to speak to President Theodore Roosevelt on behalf or his friend, which proved fortuitous.
By 1914 developments in Republican Party politics effectively silenced any meaningful voice blacks had in Party politics. In one instance Bush strongly supported the state Republican Central Committee’s endorsement of W. W. Hayes, an ex-Confederate soldier and Democrat, for the position of Commander of the Arkansas National Guard (ANG). He was considered a friend of the black race and believed his appointment would greatly increase the Party in Arkansas since it might entice other Democrats to cross the Party line. Bush asked Tuskegee educator Booker T Washington to use his influence with President Roosevelt to secure Hayes appointment. The President was anxious to strengthen the Republican Party in the South and approved the appointment.
In 1905 Bush was nearly 50, but with the support of friends and political allies survived whirlwind activity. And as mentioned earlier, he liked the intrigue of battle. This time he led the fight against discriminatory legislation influenced by the race baiting Governor, Jefferson Davis who proposed a separate tax bill whereby black schools were to be funded only by taxes collected from blacks.
By recruiting a small army of volunteers, who provided information from the U S Census Bureau and the Auditor’s Office, Bush drafted a letter to the Arkansas Democrat which revealed that the state’s 334,000 blacks paid taxes on $15,000,000 worth of real and personal property and that only a small portion was spent on black schools. The letter also pointed out that 250,000 of black tax dollars went directly into the state treasury and that a portion of every tax dollar helped support the Confederate Pension fund, as well as public facilities from which blacks were barred. This article was read three times before the State Legislature.
Playing a tremendous role in defeating Davis’s separate tax bill was W. W. Hayes, the white Democrat whom he strongly supported for the position of Commander of the ANG.
John Bush did suffer defeats concerning other discriminatory issues, like the passage of the separate coach bill, but he showed optimism in regard to race relations instead of dwelling in bitterness. Such was the strength of character displayed by this dynamic man and self-help advocate; a philosophy that will be elaborated on in a later column. C Calvin Smith; Arkansas Historical Quarterly, Volume LIV, Summer 1995