John Adams Hyman (1840-1891)

Written By Benjamin R. Justesen

John Adams Hyman was born in Warren County, North Carolina, on July 23, 1840.  He died in Washington, D.C., on September 14, 1891.

A former slave, Hyman became the first African American elected to Congress from North Carolina’s Second District in 1874, and served one term in the U.S. House as a Republican (1875–1877).  

The son of slave parents, John Hyman taught himself to read, with the apparent help of a Warrenton jeweler to whom he was apprenticed.  As punishment for being caught with a spelling book, public outrage forced his owner to sell Hyman to a slaveholder in Alabama, where Hyman remained until the Civil War’s end.  In March 1865, he returned to Warren County, where he farmed, opened a country store, and served as a trustee of the first public school for black students in Warrenton.

A member of the State Equal Rights Convention of 1865, Hyman quickly became active in Republican politics in North Carolina. He was a delegate to the March 1867 Republican State Convention, later serving as registrar for northern Warren County, recruiting emancipated blacks as voters. He was elected as a member of the state’s constitutional convention of 1868, which granted freed slaves the right to vote and hold office.  In the first election held later that year under that new constitution, Hyman was elected to the first of three terms in the N.C. Senate from the 20th District (Warren County), among a handful of black Republicans in the state’s upper legislative body.  

Reelected to the N.C. Senate in 1870 and 1872, Hyman represented the majority-black county until 1874, weathering occasional charges of corruption and misuse of campaign loans, none of which were ever substantiated.  Among other achievements, he served on a legislative committee that purchased land for a new state penitentiary.

In 1872, the Democratic-controlled legislature redrew the boundaries of the state’s congressional districts based on the 1870 census, intentionally creating one majority-Republican district in the east—the gerrymandered Second district, which also contained a majority-black population—in an attempt to weaken Republican prospects elsewhere.  Convinced the district’s black majority deserved a congressman of the same race, Hyman campaigned unsuccessfully for the Republican nomination for Congress from the Second district, mortgaging his farm to raise funds for his campaign.  Hyman lost the 1872 race to incumbent white Republican Charles R. Thomas, who was subsequently reelected, but Hyman returned to defeat Thomas at the district nominating convention in 1874.

Elected to Congress in a three-way race in August 1874, Hyman became the first black North Carolinian to win a congressional race. Although he received 60 percent of the district’s votes against white Democrat George W. Blount and black independent Republican Garland H. White, Hyman faced a lengthy post-electoral contest by Blount. He was formally seated in the Forty-fourth Congress only in August 1876.  

According to Eric Anderson’s description, Hyman’s record during his single term in Congress was “undistinguished.”  He made no speeches, and none of the few bills he introduced made it out of the House committees to which they were assigned.  During Hyman’s term, one of North Carolina’s earliest and longest-serving black postmasters was appointed in the Second District 1875: Winfield Young, who served the post office at Littleton for a total of 18 years.

Hyman did take principled but unpopular stands, including opposing a bill offering amnesty to former Confederates, and voting against establishment of the controversial electoral commission that decided the outcome of the 1876 presidential race.  He also opposed attempts to restrict President Ulysses S. Grant’s ability to seek a third term in office.  Denied renomination for Congress in 1876, Hyman served until his term expired in March 1877.

Hyman made two subsequent attempts to return to Congress, in 1878 and 1888, but lost the district’s Republican nomination both times.  After leaving Congress, Hyman returned to Warrenton, where he was a steward and active member of the Colored Methodist Church.  Criticized during the temperance movement for selling alcoholic beverages in his store, however, Hyman was expelled from the church, after being charged with embezzling funds.

He then left Warrenton to return briefly to Washington, D.C., before moving to Richmond, Virginia, and worked in a variety of jobs, including as a mail clerk’s assistant in Maryland and as a laborer for the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s seed dispensary.  Hyman returned briefly to live in Warrenton in 1887, but left again in 1888.  

Hyman died of a stroke in Washington, D.C., in 1891, and was buried in that city’s Harmony Cemetery. Survivors included his wife, Nancy, and a number of children.

A state highway historical marker was erected in Warrenton in Hyman’s memory in 1989.