James Lynch: “True to the public trust”

By H. Scott Wolfe

It was a warm November day when we entered Greenwood Cemetery—a historic, rather unkempt, burial ground near the State Capitol in downtown Jackson, Mississippi. Newspaper photograph in hand, I knew that the monument would be quite distinctive. And it was only moments before I spotted it—an elaborately carved shaft of marble, shaded by a large tree, and backed with a chain link fence topped with barbed wire. I could see inscribed at its base, in bold block letters: LYNCH. Higher, within a delicate ribbon, were the words : TRUE TO THE PUBLIC TRUST. And above that a surprisingly detailed image of the man I sought—a black man carved in white stone—James D. Lynch—minister, editor, and politician. And once a citizen of Galena, Illinois.

Galena’s African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was located at the corner of Warren and Locust streets, just west of the “Ramus Lot”, a Prospect Street property owned by black grocer John Ramus (and later the site of the “old” High School). The church was built in 1844, and until the 1870s it functioned as the spiritual, social, and political center of Galena’s thriving African American community. A series of pastors served the congregation, and one, the Reverend James Lynch, arrived in Galena on the eve of the Civil War. An educated man, with a great gift of oratory, the young minister settled nearby—and began to court Lugenia Rice, who with her family resided in the household of Garret Johnson, a church trustee. On September 1st, 1862, the couple were married in Galena. And shortly thereafter departed on a grand adventure. Lynch had been born in Baltimore in 1839, his father a freeborn merchant/minister—his mother a slave. Educated first at an elementary school conducted by the Rev. Daniel Payne of the AME church, the young man was sent to Meriden, New Hampshire, where he attended the Kimball Union Academy—one of the few Northern schools accepting African American students prior to 1860. “Pecuniary disability” limited his studies to two years, and he eventually moved on to Indianapolis, where he committed to the ministry and was assigned to preach at a small church in the bustling river town of Galena.