The Liverpool lawyer who fought the Ku Klux Klan
A Black Liverpool lawyer blazed a trail by travelling to America and becoming a congressman – before battling the racist terror group the Ku Klux Klan.
Robert Elliot was born in Liverpool in December 1842 to parents believed to have come to the city from the West Indies.
He attended public school in London, studied law and graduated from Eton in 1859.
After a stint in the Royal Navy he moved to America, settling in South Carolina just two years after the end of the civil war.
Admitted to the bar in the state in 1868, he became a practising lawyer in Columbia aged just 25.
He soon became involved in politics, helping with the local Republican party later becoming associate editor of a regional newspaper, the South Carolina Leader.
Around the same time, he made history by setting up the first African American Law firm in the US. called Whipper, Elliott, and Allen.
By 1868 he had been elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives, shortly after making history again as the state’s first African America leader of the South Carolina National Guard, helping to form a state militia to fight against the Ku Klux Klan.
Robert was then elected to the national House of Representatives receiving 60% of the vote and representing South Carolina in Washington.
As one of the first ever African Americans in the House of Representatives his arrival caused quite a stir.
Speaking of the first time he entered the house chamber, Robert later said: “I shall never forget. . . I found myself the center of attraction. Everything was still.”
In Washington, Robert served on the Committed on Education and Labor and campaigned for civil rights. He also fought for the implementation of legal measures to curtail the actions of the Ku Klux Klan.
Speaking after a shocking incident where the Ku Klux Klan broke into several South Carolina jailhouses and lynched a group of African American suspects, he said to the House: “It is custom, sir, of Democratic [newspapers] to stigmatize” black people of the Southern states “as being in a semi–barbarous condition; but pray tell me, who is the barbarian here, the murderer or the victim? I fling back in the teeth of those who make it this most false and foul aspersion.”
His outspoken speeches for civil liberties and the rights of African Americans made him a hero among black communities in America, with his numerous speeches to the house reported far and wide.
In 1876 he became state attorney general for South Carolina, although was forced out of office in 1877 after the Democrats took control of the state.
Returning to legal practice, he set up a new partnership but retained an interest and involvement in politics, helping John Sherman with his presidency campaign in 1880 and attending the Republic National Convention as a delegate that same year.
He continued to campaign for civil rights in the South, although his legal practice struggled and he ended up working as a customs inspector.
After contracting malaria while working in Florida, he then moved to New Orleans, where he lost his job in 1882.
Struggling to practice law in New Orleans and still plagued with ill health following his bout of malaria, this remarkable man from Liverpool who made his mark on American history sadly died there, in poverty, in 1884.