Astwood was thirty years old when he migrated to #NewOrleans in 1874. According to the Christian Recorder, his life up to that moment had been marked by both privilege and tragedy….. Born in #SaltCayIsland in 1844, Astwood lived in the #BritishWestIndies #TurksandCaicos Islands during his childhood. The Astwoods were counted among the more privileged class of people. As a young man, he worked in revenue services for the Turks and Caicos Islands’ new government. His brother, George Astwood, ran the commercial house on the island, and Astwood later joined him in the family
business as the manager of George A. Astwood & Bros. This arrangement would have made Astwood a prominent member of Salt Cay’s small society, but it all ended
abruptly when George died prematurely. He stayed a while longer but sought to make a name for himself by taking a trip to America. Mix-race AfroCreoles also rose in social standing, and scrambled to secure their elevated place among African descendants within a volatile atmosphere in which the former three-tiered caste system was quickly disappearing. For those who lived in New Orleans during the post-war period, the first decade of Reconstruction had presented tragedies as well as opportunities.Astwood witnessed these social changes first hand, he was taken aback by the overt racial violence that newly formed white supremacist groups
perpetrated against black American citizens in the 1870s. Astwood became an ardent follower of #PinckneyPinchback, one of the few #AfricanAmerican outsiders to penetrate the Afro-Creole aristocracy. By 1874, Pinchback’s political and business career after the #CivilWar earned him a considerable amount of wealth and power within New Orleans’s society. Astwood was fortunate to come under Pinchback’s good graces. Pinchback employed Astwood as an assistant editor for the #WeeklyLouisianian, the black newspaper that Pinchback owned.
The position enabled Astwood to learn a trade that would serve him later in life.
Working at the Weekly Louisianian also taught Astwood about American politics.
Pinchback’s ambiguous morality within the Gilded Age political sphere undoubtedly
left an impression on Astwood, who saw politics as one way to advance his social status;
he launched his own political career after only two years in New Orleans. Between 1876
and 1882, Astwood worked as the deputy U.S. marshal in Carroll Parish. He was also an
orator for the Republic Party and the deputy collector of internal revenue at the New Orleans customhouse. These positions made Astwood part of the extensive and highly
criticized patronage networks of the Republican Party. At the same time, they earned
Astwood the local prestige and income that he had wanted.
Thus, although Astwood never held a high political position like Pinchback, their relationship helped Astwood to quickly ascend the social ladder.Astwood’s involvement in politics, however, ultimately did not enable him to penetrate the Afro-Creole elite class. During his time in New Orleans, he remained in a
liminal social space between high black society and the black popular class. This fact is a
result of the exclusivity of the black aristocracy and Astwood’s lack of certain “Afro-
Creole” racial and cultural markings. Although mixed-race, Astwood was darker in
complexion than the elite Afro-Creoles who gained wealth and prestige during this
period—including Pinchback. Astwood was also most likely poor when he first arrived
in New Orleans.Religion was another area in which Astwood differed from his social superiors.
Unlike the Afro-Creoles of New Orleans, Astwood was Protestant, not Catholic. He
moreover became a member and preacher of the AME Church—a denomination
associated with the black popular class. The transition from the British Wesleyan Church
to the AME Church earned Astwood greater social capital among black people in New
Orleans—especially as Astwood quickly rose to leadership within the church. During
his time in the Louisiana Conference, Astwood became a “favorite of the late Bishop
T.M.E. Ward,” who hired Astwood as his private secretary. Astwood also became a
local preacher in 1878 and was ordained a deacon in 1880 under Ward. In these
positions, Astwood used the pulpit to simultaneously preach Christianity and propagate Republican politics. Astwood’s dedication to the AME Church thus elevated his social standing among poor and middle-class black people while also pushing him further
away from the Afro-Creole elite class.Between 1876-1881, Astwood continued to use both the AME pulpit and Republican platform to advocate for blacks’ rights in Louisiana. This work, however, became increasingly dangerous. The contentious results of the 1876 election led to the Compromise of 1877, which removed federal troops from the South and effectively ended Reconstruction. Black Republicans like Astwood were thus left on their own to defend African Americans civil rights. During this time, Astwood spoke out against the segregation of public schools, which was legislated by the state congress on July 3,
1877. He also argued against AME emigration schemes, stating that the “colored race
could do better at home.” As a Member of the Colored Men’s Protective Union in New
Orleans, Astwood even traveled to Washington in 1881 as part of a delegation in order
to pressure the newly elected president, James A. Garfield, for equal rights in political
representation. Yet, given the growing violence against black political participation,
Astwood and other politicians’ work on behalf of the tens of thousands of
disenfranchised blacks in Louisiana increasingly put black lives in peril and yielded
fewer and fewer tangible rewards.
Considering the danger that he faced, it is possible that Astwood began to plan
his exit from Louisiana during the next election of 1880. Yet, it was not until 1881 thatthe opportunity to leave presented itself. On July 4th, 1881, Astwood stood solemnly
before the parishioners of New Orleans’s St. James AME Church. The day was supposed
to have been a joyous, twofold celebration of the nation’s independence and the
dedication of a newly constructed AME schoolhouse that would serve the city’s black
population. Instead, the parishioners gathered to mourn the assassination attempt
against U.S. President Garfield that had taken place only two days prior. Like others of
his time, Astwood would never forget the tragic events of the summer of 1881. Nor
would he forget the subsequent circumstances that led him back to the island that he
had abandoned eight years prior. After Garfield’s death, Astwood, Pinchback, and other
Republicans left New Orleans to meet with the new U.S. President, Chester A. Arthur, in
Washington D.C., where they vied for promotions within the Republic party.
With his background living in the Spanish Caribbean, Astwood was considered for governmental posts in Cuba and the Dominican Republic. Despite doubts about his citizenship status and other protests raised by Charles R. Douglass, Astwood was confirmed as U.S.
council to Santo Domingo in February 1882. The position brought Astwood back to the island of his youth, and it brought Santo Domingo its very first AME missionary—an
Afro-Caribbean man who was forever changed by his time living among African
Americans in the U.S. South.