Since the birth of the United States to the 118th Congress a total of 186 African Americans have served as U.S. representatives, delegates, or senators. During that time over 12,000 individuals served in Congress. The obstacles and barriers placed on Black people in the United States have diminished over time as we became a more tolerant and diverse country. The history of Black representatives in the legislative branch is directly linked to the historical era in which they served and the obstacles they faced at the time.
Reconstruction Era, 1865–1876
After the defeat of the Confederate States of America at the hands of Abraham Lincoln and the Union, the U.S. passed the Reconstruction Amendments 1865–1870. These amendments gave the freedman newfound citizenship and rights they did not enjoy before. The 13th Amendment abolished slavery, the 14th granted freedman born or naturalized in the U.S. citizenship, and the 15th made it unconstitutional to deny or restrict the right to vote based on race or previous condition of enslavement. In order to enforce these newfound rights, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which allowed the rights of freedmen to be protected by the military and Freedmen's Bureau. The first Black man to address the U.S. House of Representatives was a man named Henry Highland Garnet (1815–1882), an abolitionist minister speaking in support of the passage of the 13th Amendment in 1865.
The Reconstruction Amendments gave the freedman new rights and abilities to organize politically. This newfound organization resulted in Joseph Hayne Rainey (1832–1887) becoming the first directly elected Black member of Congress. As a former slave, Rainey worked hard in order to promote the advancement of equality saying “I say to you gentlemen, that this discrimination against the Negro race in this country is unjust, is unworthy of a high-minded people whose example should have a salutary influence in the world.” After Rainey, states would start electing Black representatives and senators from Alabama to Virginia. Hiram Rhodes Revels, for example, was the first Black senator serving for the state of Mississippi.
President Ulysses S. Grant was elected in 1868 and sought to promote the cause of Reconstruction and defend the rights of the freedman. The cause resulted in the proliferation of Black social, economic, and political representation. However, these gains were met with almost immediate push back. Violent terrorist organizations like the White League and Klu Klux Klan started taking steps to undermine this progress by using fear and intimidation tactics. This violence was intended to weaken support for the Republican party and the rights of newly freed people. This forced the 42nd Congress to take action, passing the Ku Klux Klan Act, a bill meant to allow the federal government to enforce and protect the rights of freedmen. This conflict between the federal government and these local groups led to the compromise election of 1876 between Samual Tilden and Rutherford B. Hayes. In exchange for the presidency, the Republican and Democratic parties agreed to the Compromise of 1877. The deal required the Republican Party to withdraw federal troops from the South effectively ending Reconstruction and leaving millions of former enslaved people under the power of those who would curtail their rights.
With the withdrawal of federal troops from the South, nothing stood in the way of Southern “redeemers” and the enforcement of white supremacy. This period post reconstruction laid the groundwork for Jim Crow and racial segregation in the South. These redeemers immediately began targeting the rights of Blacks in the South to vote by implementing new requirements for voting such as poll taxes, literacy tests, and other elements Blacks or freedmen found difficult to achieve. This undermined Black political participation in a number of states. As a result, the number of Black elected representatives went from 8 in 1878 to 1 in 1879. It would take nearly a century for Black congressional representation to recover in the United States. The last Black elected congressman of the 19th century was George White in 1886. After him no Black people served in Congress for another 28 years and none were elected by a Southern state for another 70+ years.
Civil Rights Era and Black Political Revival, 1967–Present
“The moral Arc of the Universe is long but ultimately it bends towards Justice” — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.
The passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 by President Lyndon Banes Johnson outlawed many discriminatory voting practices adopted by many states after the Civil War. This allowed African Americans to exercise their right to vote without artificial hurdles placed on them by the state. For example, the number of Black representatives in Congress jumped from 4 in 1961 to over 10 in 1969. These protections saw the return of elected Black members to Congress, including individuals like Representative Shirley Chisholm of New York who was elected in 1969 and was the first Black Woman to serve in Congress. This progress continued over time; for example, in the 118th Congress there were over 62 elected Black members of Congress.
The history of Black political representation in the United States is a story that runs in parallel to the history of America. It’s a story that shows us the promise of America and the ideals we hold so dear of liberty and justice for all.
This was written by Benjamin Whittington, the Director of Development and Communications at Vote Smart. He oversees the fundraising and communications aspects of all things Vote Smart. Ben has a degree in political science from Iowa State University.