Breaking Barriers: Black Americans in Congress

Explore these sample topics of black Americans breaking barriers in Congress. For more, visit the Black Americans in Congress exhibition.

Featured Topics

This 1872 Currier & Ives lithograph shows the first African–American Members of the House and Senate. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This 1872 Currier & Ives lithograph shows the first African–American Members of the House and Senate.

Reconstruction Era

"The Fifteenth Amendment in Flesh and Blood": The Symbolic Generation of Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1887
An essay on the pioneering African-American Representatives elected to the House during Reconstruction, who often braved elections marred by violence and fraud and who argued passionately for legislation promoting racial equality.

The Joint Committee on Reconstruction
A historical highlight about the committee that investigated political and social conditions in the former Confederate states before considering their readmission to the Union.

The Wade–Davis Reconstruction Bill
A historical highlight describing the bill that firmly asserted congressional control over the rehabilitation of the defeated Confederacy.

Reconstruction Records
Historical documents from 1865–1877, including the Wade–Davis bill described above.

Civil Rights Era

Baton-wielding Alabama state troopers waded into a crowd of peaceful civil rights demonstrators March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama. Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Baton-wielding Alabama state troopers waded into a crowd of peaceful civil rights demonstrators March 7, 1965, in Selma, Alabama.

Bridging History: Selma and the Voting Rights Act of 1965
A documentary that examines the House's swift legislative response to "Bloody Sunday," when peaceful protesters were brutally attacked by state troopers.

Majority Whip Hale Boggs’ Support of the Voting Rights Act of 1965
A historical highlight addressing Louisiana Representative Hale Boggs’ stirring speech in favor of the Voting Rights Act of 1965.

Integrating Dick and Jane
A blog about the House investigating the portrayal of minorities in schoolbooks.

Civil Rights Records
A collection of House records related to civil rights.

Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was the first African American to serve in the House of Representatives. Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was the first African American to serve in the House of Representatives.

Featured U.S. Representatives

Joseph Rainey of South Carolina
Representative Rainey was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first African American to preside over the House, and the longest–serving African American during the Reconstruction period.

Robert Smalls of South Carolina
Representative Smalls was a Civil War hero who escaped slavery.

Shirley Chisholm of New York
Representative Chisholm was the first African–American woman in Congress.

Ron Dellums of California
Representative Dellums was the first African-American to serve on and later chair the Armed Services Committee.

Yvonne Burke of California
Representative Burke was the first African-American woman elected to the House from California and the first woman to give birth while serving in Congress.

Eva Clayton of North Carolina
Representative Clayton was the first African-American woman to represent North Carolina.

Featured Objects

African-American Congressmen
<i>African-American Congressmen</i>/tiles/non-collection/n/nhd_afamcongressmen.xml
Portraits of five African Americans serving in Congress during Reconstruction - Joseph Rainey, John Lynch, James Rapier, Hiram Revels, and Blanche K. Bruce - were included in this engraved illustration from Speaker James Blaine’s two-volume publication Twenty Years of Congress from Lincoln to Garfield. Read more about this object.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, Ebony Magazine Cover
<i>Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke of California, </i>Ebony <i>Magazine Cover</i>/tiles/non-collection/n/nhd_burke.xml
Ebony magazine featured Representative Yvonne Brathwaite Burke in its March 1973 issue, shortly after the birth of her daughter. She was the first sitting Member of Congress to give birth while serving. Read more about this object.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Congressional Delegation to Visit Alabama
<i>Congressional Delegation to Visit Alabama</i>/tiles/non-collection/n/nhd_delegation.xml
In February of 1965, following the arrest of Martin Luther King, Jr., a multiracial, bipartisan Congressional delegation traveled to Selma, Alabama. Read more about this object.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Representative Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York
<i>Representative Shirley Anita Chisholm of New York</i>/tiles/non-collection/n/nhd_chisholm.xml
Shirley Chisholm’s boldness is emphasized in the portrait commemorating her service in the House. Read more about this object.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
Representative Ronald V. Dellums of California
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Armed Services Committee Chairman Ron Dellums' commanding presence is ably captured in his committee portrait. He was the first African American on the committee. Read more about this object.
Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives