On a sheet the size of a small poster, 22 politicians’ portraits crowd the image, titled “Colored Men Who Have Served in the Congress of the United States.” The worn print recalls the decades following the Civil War, when African Americans came to Congress to represent their fellow Southerners in the national legislature. And more than a memory, it testifies to the persistence of hope during Jim Crow–era political violence and disenfranchisement.
In 1907, when this poster came off the printing press, there were no African-American Members of Congress. Despite a promising beginning during Reconstruction, the election of African Americans to federal office dwindled during the rise of Jim Crow’s racial violence and oppression. In 1901, the only African American in Congress, Representative George White of North Carolina, left office, beginning the nearly three-decade drought of representation.
A close look at this print and its publisher reveals the piece as an embodiment of the continuing flicker of hoped-for progress, kept alive through the dark period of Jim Crow. Images of the two Senators in the group ground the center of the print, atop a pair of decoratively undulating American flags. Twenty Representatives surround them. In the upper left corner, the first African-American Representative, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, begins the procession. At bottom, in the second image from the left, George White closes out the era. Between Rainey and White, men of determination, courage, and skill fought long odds to gain their seats in the House. At a time when some claimed Reconstruction had failed, one can read this print as a rebuke of that idea.
The print is composed in the collage style of a scrapbook or photograph album. Images, some oval and some rectangular, are tilted, as if artfully placed on a scrapbook page. Ribbons and leafy curlicues behind the pictures tie the depictions together and reinforce the notion that they are mementoes pasted on a page. And what is a scrapbook, if not a book of memories? Each image is a disembodied memory that, when assembled with name and dates of congressional service below them, creates a narrative. The print’s caption makes the allusion clear: “This engraving is a graphic political history of the Negro in America.”
Edward Elder Cooper, the African-American printmaker who made this work and registered the copyright in 1907, is credited on the lower right of the paper. It had been six years since George White departed Congress, saying in his valedictory speech that, after three decades of black participation in the House, “this, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress.” Cooper knew all too much about the departure of opportunities for African Americans in the public arena. He came to the capital in 1893 to try his hand at national journalism. As editor and publisher of the Indianapolis Freeman, he made a name for himself and his paper. Cooper’s next venture, the Colored American, lasted a decade and was at one time credited with the largest circulation of any African-American paper in the country. Cooper had a gift for attracting advertisers and providing big tabloid-style articles, and he aligned the paper with such major figures as Booker T. Washington.
But no black journalist, even one with Cooper’s reputation, could support himself through reporting, so when Cooper came to Washington, he sought a government post. Such positions were often patronage jobs, and as Cooper worked to keep his paper afloat, he held positions with the Washington tax collector’s office and the federal Census. By 1907, Cooper’s experiences mirrored what was possible and improbable for a black man in the civic arena, and his engraving was a memory of the past and promise of the future. It did not record a rosy present for African-American politicians or for Cooper. Government jobs vanished, and the Colored American collapsed. Cooper made ends meet through a novelty company, a pleasure ferry business, and, judging from this artifact, occasional publishing ventures. In this particular effort, he was perhaps looking not for riches, but to continue his civic activism. In the decades that followed, the men in the engraving held pride of place in homes and schools in the black community. No one knew that it would be another 22 years before Oscar De Priest became the next black man to serve in Congress.
“Colored Men Who Have Served” was not just a poignant “graphic political history” but also a promise of future enfranchisement. Someone, or more likely several owners, knew how important the persistence of hope was, and kept the engraving for years. Conservation revealed important details of the object’s life after Edward Cooper printed it. The stalwart individual who purchased it for $1 pasted it onto a wall. Later, an owner peeled the print off the wall, bringing the wallpaper behind it along. Later still, someone glued it to a board to make it sturdier. A century of being rubbed, bumped, and scuffed dimmed its details but not its importance. Eventually, the print made its way into the House Collection, probably without ever leaving the capital city. Cooper’s print lays down the marker that these men would not be forgotten, and that “Phoenix-like,” as George White put it, African Americans “will rise up some day and come again” to the halls of Congress.
Sources: Armistead S. Pride and Clint C. Wilson II, A History of the Black Press (Washington, DC: Howard University Press, 1997); Catalogue of Copyright Entries, Part 4: Engravings, Cuts and Prints; Chromos and Lithographs; Photographs; Fine Arts (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907); Washington Post, 12 July 1906; Freeman (Indianapolis, IN) 18 July 1908; Benjamin R. Justesen, “George Henry White and the End of an Era,” Washington History 15, no. 2 (Fall/Winter, 2003/2004).Follow @USHouseHistory