Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Edition for Educators—African-American Congressmen in the 19th Century

Robert Smalls/tiles/non-collection/2/2-17-Smalls_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Robert Smalls of South Carolina contested his re-election loss in 1886, but the House of Representatives declined to seat him after settling several previous conflicted elections.
“My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere. All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
—Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina

Robert Smalls fought for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives despite violence from the opposition, and focused his congressional career on promoting African-American civil rights. Twenty-two African Americans served in Congress from 1870 to 1901. Learn more about the life and accomplishments of Robert Smalls and other 19th-century African-American Members of Congress for Black History Month.

Featured People

Robert Smalls of South Carolina
An escaped slave and a Civil War hero, Robert Smalls served five terms in the U.S. House, representing a South Carolina district described as a “black paradise” because of its abundant political opportunities for freedmen. Overcoming the state Democratic Party’s repeated attempts to remove that “blemish” from its goal of white supremacy, Smalls endured violent elections and a short jail term to win election to the U.S. House. In office, he achieved internal improvements for coastal South Carolina and fought for his black constituents in the face of growing disfranchisement.

Benjamin S. Turner of Alabama
A former slave and a self-made businessman who lost property during the Civil War, Benjamin Turner focused on restoring peace and repairing economic damage in the war-ravaged South. The first African-American Representative from Alabama, Turner tirelessly promoted the industriousness of his black constituents. “These people have struggled longer and labored harder, and have made more of the raw material than any people in the world,” he once noted on the House Floor.

Heroes of the Colored Race/tiles/non-collection/2/2-17-heroes_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress “Heroes of the Colored Race,” a print published by J. Hoover of Philadelphia in 1881, pictured Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, orator Frederick Douglass, and Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi. The vignettes depicted scenes from African-American life as well as portraits of other Members of Congress: John Lynch of Mississippi, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, Charles Nash of Louisiana, and Robert Smalls of South Carolina.

Featured Educational Resource

Lesson Plan One: “The Fifteenth Amendment in Flesh and Blood,” The Symbolic Generation of Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1887
What effect did slavery have on the lives of the early black Members of Congress? Why were there so many more black Members from South Carolina than from any other state? This lesson plan is designed for grades 7 to 12. These activities are designed to help students being able to identify the African Americans who served in Congress from 1870 to 1887 as well as analyze their role within Congress and how important issues and trends of the time affected them.

Featured Highlights

13th Amendment
January 31, 1865
The House passed the 13th Amendment to the Constitution, abolishing slavery in the United States on January 31, 1865. After the House had failed to follow the Senate in mustering the two-thirds majority necessary to amend the Constitution the previous June, Representative James M. Ashley of Ohio successfully revived the amendment.

Civil Rights Acts of 1875
February 4, 1875
On February 4, 1875, the House passed the Civil Rights Act of 1875 by a vote of 162 to 99. First introduced by one of Congress’s greatest advocates for black civil rights, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts, in 1870, the original bill sought to outlaw racial discrimination in juries, schools, transportation, and public accommodations. The final version was not as sweeping as Sumner had intended.

Jefferson Long/tiles/non-collection/2/2-17-long_loc.xml Image courtesy of Library of Congress Jefferson Long was the first African-American Member to address the House of Representatives in session in 1871.

Featured Objects in the House Collection

African-American Congressmen
Portraits of five African Americans serving in Congress during Reconstruction—Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina, John Lynch of Pennsylvania, James T. Rapier of Alabama, Hiram R. Revels of Mississippi, and Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi—were included in this engraved illustration from Speaker James G. Blaine's two-volume publication Twenty Years of Congress from Lincoln to Garfield.

"Hon. Robert Brown Elliot, An Eloquent Negro Congressman from Calhoun’s Old District, South Carolina"
Robert Brown Elliott’s portrait, in the upper right of this page, accompanied a profile that highlighted his education in England and experience as a member of South Carolina’s 1868 Constitutional Convention. Elliott, who represented the former district of John C. Calhoun, was also praised for his public speaking skills. The article described the 31-year-old as “an eloquent orator of experience,” particularly with regard to “his great speech on the Civil Rights Bill.”

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.