During the Reconstruction Era, African Americans gained elective office and the U.S. House of Representatives was forever changed. Americans know the narrative that describes Reconstruction as the "Second American Revolution"—one in which basic political and citizenship rights were conferred upon freed slaves (at least the men). Congressional Reconstruction imposed in the South also changed the face of the membership of the House. Black Americans, some of them former slaves, were elected to the chamber. In all, 20 served between 1870 and 1901 . . . before Jim Crow laws and customs effectively removed African-American legislators from Washington for more than a generation.
Until recently, however, we knew very little about the changes that Reconstruction wrought at the staff level in the House. That has begun to change as historians have access to greater research tools-namely digitized copies of historical newspapers and the Congressional Record and its predecessors. In fact, these tools and an evolving appreciation for Reconstruction's impact on our institution have brought into focus a whole new set of pioneers. (Among them are George T. Downing, proprietor of the House Restaurant, and William H. Smith, House Librarian.)
For many years it was believed that Frank Mitchell of Illinois, became the first African-American Page to serve in the House-on April 14, 1965, sponsored by Paul Findley and Gerald R. Ford. It was highly symbolic, occurring on the 100th anniversary of Lincoln's assassination and just weeks after the galvanizing march on Selma. The media closely covered Mitchell's appointment. In an oral history interview, Mitchell marveled at the fact that he watched debate on the landmark Voting Rights Act of 1965, from the Republican Cloakroom doorway.
But unbeknownst to Mitchell, Congressmen Findley and Ford, or anyone else, Mitchell wasn't a "first" . . . not by a long shot.
Historical newspapers, official House disbursement reports, and Census records indicate that the very first African American appointed as a House Page was a teenager named Alfred Q. Powell from Manchester, Virginia. On April 1, 1871, during the first session of the 42nd Congress (1871–1873), Representative Charles Howell Porter of Virginia sponsored Powell as a Page. Porter was a carpetbagger Republican from New York State who had served in the Union Army, settled in Virginia after the war, and become active in state politics. When Virginia was re-admitted to the Union in 1870, Porter won election to represent a Richmond-centered district for two terms. In pushing for Powell's appointment, he was joined by two other northern carpetbaggers representing Virginia districts: James Platt and William Stowell.
Powell's first day as a Page in the Republican-controlled House coincided with a contentious debate on the eve of the first Ku Klux Klan Act. Notable African-American Members such as Robert Elliott and Joseph Rainey of South Carolina delivered speeches on the floor attesting to violations against the 14th Amendment rights of their constituents. A New-York Tribune correspondent wrote that "except [for] some practical jokes which have been put upon [Powell] by some of the older pages, he got started very creditably." House expense reports indicate that Powell served as a Page until late in 1872, just months before the close of the 42nd Congress.
Sources: Contingent Expenses of the U.S. House of Representatives, 42nd Cong.; New-York Tribune, April 3, 1871; Baltimore Sun, April 3, 1871; Chicago Tribune, April 2, 1871; The Daily State Journal (Richmond, VA), April 3, 1871.