Whereas: Stories from the People’s House

Edition for Educators—Black History Month: African-American Congressmen in Committee

William Levi Dawson at work/tiles/non-collection/2/2008_008.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
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 renamed the Government Operations Committee.

“We don’t have to go hat in hand begging anybody. In fact, it’s just the reverse. Now a lot of people have to come hat in hand [to us] asking us for favors.”
—Representative William Lacy Clay, Sr., of Missouri, on African-American committee membership in the 99th Congress (1985–1987)

In 1877, Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi became the first African-American Member appointed to chair a congressional committee. Chairing the Select Committee on the Mississippi River in the 45th Congress (1877–1879), Bruce secured funding to reduce flooding along the river’s banks. He went on to chair the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company in 1879, before losing his Senate seat the following year after a single term. The institution of Jim Crow laws in the late 1800s sharply limited the number of African Americans elected to Congress until passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965. As voting reforms led to greater black political participation and more African-Americans being elected to Congress, Black Members began to establish seniority sufficient to attain chairmanships and better committee assignments.

Featured People

James Edward O’Hara of North Carolina
A freeborn man of Irish–West Indian heritage, James O’Hara was the only black Member on the first day of the 48th Congress (1883–1885), having succeeded on his fourth attempt to win a seat representing North Carolina’s “Black Second” district. O’Hara only served two terms, but he became the first African-American Member to chair a House subcommittee in 1887 when he was appointed chair of a subcommittee under the Committee on Invalid Pensions.

William Levi Dawson of Illinois
The third African American elected to Congress in the 20th century and the first black Member to chair a standing committee, William L. Dawson of Illinois served in the House of Representatives for nearly three decades. Dawson, who described himself as a “congressman first and a Negro second,” avoided highlighting his race, preferring instead to build a base of power using the established seniority system of the House of Representatives.

Featured Exhibition

Black Americans in Congress (1870–Present): Historical Data
This comprehensive data section is kept up to date online. It includes lists of African-American committee assignments,committee chairs and subcommittee chairs among much other helpful information.

Shirley Chisholm on the Rules Committee,95th Congress/tiles/non-collection/P/PA2015_03_0025_2.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The first African–American Congresswoman, Shirley Anita Chisholm represented a newly reapportioned U.S. House district centered in Brooklyn, New York. Here she serves on the Rules Committee as part of the 95th Congress.

Featured Educational Resource

Black Americans in Congress Fact Sheet
This fact sheet lists notable moments and achievements in the history of African-American Members of Congress, including committee-related firsts. It also features several tips for teachers exploring this important topic.

Featured Highlight

Representative Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., of New York
November 29, 1908
On this date, Adam Clayton Powell, Jr., the first African American to represent a New York district in Congress, was born. During his tenure as chairman of the Education and Labor Committee from the 87th through the 89th (1961–1967) Congresses, the panel approved more than 50 measures authorizing federal programs for increases in the minimum wage, education and training for the deaf, school lunches, vocational training, student loans, and aid for elementary and secondary schools and public libraries. Ultimately, a myriad of legal problems and unpredictable behavior undermined Powell’s influential but controversial political career.

Featured Oral History

First African-American Member on the House Armed Services Committee
Representative Ronald V. Dellums of California shares how his historic appointment to the Armed Services Committee came to be through a meeting with Speaker Carl Albert.

The Honorable Ronald V. Dellums, U.S. Representative of California Interview recorded April 19, 2012 Transcript (PDF)

Chairmen and Seniority
Originally appointed in the 93rd Congress (1973–1975), Representative Dellums discusses his rise to the position of Armed Services Committee chairman in the 103rd Congress (1993–1995).

The Honorable Ronald V. Dellums, U.S. Representative of California Interview recorded April 19, 2012 Transcript (PDF)

Featured Objects in the House Collection

Augustus Freeman (Gus) Hawkins
“Gus” Hawkins of California was proud of many accomplishments in his time as Chairman of the Education and Labor Committee, but the one he chose to be included in his portrait was Opening Doors for America’s Children, a report on child welfare completed the same year as the portrait.

Gus Hawkins with constituents/tiles/non-collection/P/PA2015_08_0001d.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Known by his colleagues on the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC) as the “Silent Warrior,” the longtime Representative Gus Hawkins earned the respect of black leaders because of his determination to tackle social issues like unemployment and his commitment to securing equal educational opportunities for impoverished Americans.

William Herbert Gray, III
This portrait of Bill Gray of Pennsylvania, the first African-American Congressman to chair the powerful and partisan House Budget Committee, presents him against a neutral background, hand resting on a chair. Gray’s reputation as calm, cool, and collected is reflected in his steady gaze and solid, almost columnar stance.

View other committee chair portraits through the Collection Search.

Featured Blog

“Harry Needs a Rest”
In an institution still largely segregated and even unwelcoming to its African-American Members in the 1930s, Harry Parker’s six decades of loyal service to the House—primarily as an aide to the Ways and Means Committee—engendered respect and affection. The New York Times described the House Chamber’s 1937 celebration of Parker in the House Chamber as the “most extraordinary tribute ever paid” to an African-American in the House up to that point. However, it was Parker’s illustrious “origin” that first endeared him to Members of Congress and the local media.

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.