Read essays that provide historical context about four distinct generations of African Americans in Congress. Among the topics discussed in each essay are institutional developments, legislative agendas, social changes, and national historical events that have shaped the experiences of black Members of Congress since Reconstruction.
The arrival of Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina on Capitol Hill in 1870 ranks among the great paradoxes in American history; just a decade earlier, these African Americans’ congressional seats were held by southern slave owners. Moreover, the U.S. Capitol, the center of legislative government, conceived by its creators as the “Temple of Liberty”—had been constructed with the help of enslaved laborers.
These pioneering African-American Representatives symbolized a new democratic order in the United States, demonstrating not only courage but also relentless determination. They often braved elections marred by violence and fraud. With nuance and tact they balanced the needs of black and white constituents in their Southern districts, and they argued passionately for legislation promoting racial equality.
By the 1890s, most Black Americans had either been barred from or abandoned electoral politics in frustration. Advocacy for blacks in Congress became substantially more difficult. After North Carolina Representative George White’s departure from the House of Representatives in March 1901, no African American served in the U.S. Congress for nearly three decades.
With his election to the U.S. House of Representatives from a Chicago district in 1928, Oscar De Priest of Illinois became the first African American to serve in Congress since George White of North Carolina left office in 1901. But while the victory symbolized renewed hope for African Americans struggling to regain a foothold in national politics, it was only the beginning of an arduous journey.
The modern era of African Americans’ more than 140-year history in Congress began in 1971. During this period, black Members enjoyed a tremendous surge in numbers, reflecting a larger historical process, as minority groups and women exercised their new freedom to participate in American society. The post-1970 generation of Black Americans in Congress marked a watershed in American history—a transition from a period of prolonged protest to full political participation.