Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Edition for Educators—Celebrating Black History Month

Joseph Hayne Rainey/tiles/non-collection/2/2-24-text-rainey_2004_098_000.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives 
About this object
Joseph Rainey spoke boldly in support of civil rights on the House Floor as the first African-American Member of the House of Representatives.
“I tell you that the Negro will never rest until he gets his rights. We ask [for civil rights] because we know it is proper not because we want to deprive any other class of the rights and immunities they enjoy, but because they are granted to us by the law of the land.”
—Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, on the House Floor (December 19, 1873)

In 1870, Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first African Americans to serve in Congress. To date, a total of 140 African Americans have served as U.S. Representatives or Senators. Learn about the many accomplishments and historic firsts among African-American Members of Congress for Black History Month.

Featured Educational Resources

Review a series of lesson plans on the African-American pioneers who served on Capitol Hill from 1870 to 2007. Based on the contextual essays from the Black Americans in Congress book, the activities—designed for middle and high school students—incorporate historic photographs, objects, and quotations from African-American Members.

Featured People

Joseph Rainey of South Carolina
Born into slavery, Joseph Rainey was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first to preside over the House, and the longest-serving during the tumultuous Reconstruction period. “I tell you that the Negro will never rest until he gets his rights,” he said on the House Floor. “We ask [for civil rights] because we know it is proper,” Rainey added, “not because we want to deprive any other class of the rights and immunities they enjoy, but because they are granted to us by the law of the land.”

Shirley Chisholm of New York
The first African-American Congresswoman, Shirley Anita Chisholm represented a newly reapportioned U.S. House district centered in Brooklyn, New York. Elected in 1968 because of her roots in the Bedford-Stuyvesant neighborhood, Chisholm was catapulted into the national limelight by virtue of her race, gender, and outspoken personality. She later made history by becoming the first African-American woman to serve on the powerful House Rules Committee.

Featured Exhibit

The House and Selma: Bridging History and Memory
Late in the afternoon of March 7, 1965, John Lewis and Hosea Williams paused on the sidewalk at the crown of the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. Williams peered over the side. A long way down—about 100 feet, Lewis figured—the Alabama River flowed south and west toward Mobile Bay. Behind them, a huge crowd of protesters made its way up a steep rise in the bridge. In front of them, at the foot of the bridge on the opposite bank, Alabama state troopers and Dallas County police officers waited to turn them back. Most were on foot, others were on horseback. Lewis, Williams, and the crowd of nearly 600 only paused for a moment before marching again. They crossed the bridge that day to protest the exclusion of African Americans from registering to vote in the South, but what happened next arguably changed the course of the civil rights movement.

Featured Oral History

Frank Mitchell
As the first African-American House Page of the 20th century, Frank Mitchell made history by breaking racial barriers while also witnessing significant moments in the civil rights movement, including the floor debates for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Listen to an audio clip of Frank Mitchell explaining the significance of being the first African-American Page to serve in the House of Representatives in the 20th century.

Frank Mitchell, Page, U.S. House of Representatives Interview recorded August 6, 2008 Transcript (PDF)
More remembrances of the U.S. House and the civil rights movement can be found on our Oral History page.

Featured Objects in the House Collection

William Levi Dawson
William L. Dawson, who served in Congress from 1943 through 1970, was the first African American to chair a standing House committee—the Expenditures in the Executive Departments Committee (later named Government Operations). During his career, civil rights activists accused him of placing his loyalty to the Democratic Party above his commitment to fighting racial inequality. Dawson, who described himself as a “congressman first and Negro second,” avoided highlighting his race, preferring instead to build a base of power using the established seniority system of the House.

Cardiss Collins Campaign Button
When Congressman George Collins died, party leaders urged his wife Cardiss Collins to run in the special election that followed. Traditionally, the “widow’s mandate” was used to help retain a seat temporarily, with the widow stepping down after completing her husband’s term. This button shows that Cardiss Collins did no such thing. Instead, she was elected to 12 consecutive terms and became one of Congress’ longest-serving women of color.

This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.