One of America’s First Civil-Rights Presidents
James A. Garfield served only six months in The White House, but his determination to advance justice and equality among all citizens might well have changed the course of American history had he not been assassinated 120 days into his presidency.
By the time of his death at age 49, Garfield had served as a minister, a lawyer, a college president, a member of Congress and a general in the Civil War. Born in Orange Township, Ohio, Garfield was the last of the log-cabin presidents, raised by his mother in poverty among three siblings.
By age 20, he was admitted to Western Reserve Eclectic Institute (now Hiram College) in Ohio and later graduated with honors from Williams College in Massachusetts. As a minister, college president and professor, Garfield was elected to the Ohio Senate on a platform of anti-slavery, two years before the Civil War. It was a conviction that would later shape his political legacy.
During Garfield’s 1881 presidential inaugural address, he said empowering African Americans with the full rights of citizenship was the most important political change the nation faced since the adoption of the Constitution.
Soon after, Garfield appointed four African Americans to a presidential administration, including Frederick Douglass, now known as the father of civil rights. No other president would address racial equality in an inauguration for the next 85 years.
Before his presidency, Garfield had grown increasingly concerned that the emancipation of enslaved people fell short of a more comprehensive plan to integrate African Americans into society.
In the years following his assassination, the American south reembraced racial inequities with vestiges of re-enslavement that remain visible today.
The National Historic Site
The James A. Garfield National Historic Site in Mentor, Ohio, honors a progressive leader prevented from setting civil rights on a path ahead of its time. Lawnfield, as the property is known, is an exceptionally well preserved and accurately restored presidential home that includes one the nation’s first presidential libraries and a complete collection of art and personal artifacts from Garfield’s life.