Washington Experience

Black Representatives found one of the country’s most expansive black elite communities when they arrived in Washington during the Reconstruction Era. In the postwar years, the country’s well-educated and wealthy African-American population escaped the violence of the South and competition from white elites in Boston and Philadelphia to settle in Washington. The “black 400” were drawn to the capital city because of its cultural opportunities, government employment, and relative economic security, and because of the presence of one of the country’s premier black colleges: Howard University. They considered themselves socially superior to the rest of the 40,000-plus African Americans in the city, who were primarily former slaves seeking refuge in the city following the Civil War.54 Black Representatives were well accepted among the black elite. Blanche Bruce’s family was among the leading households; he purchased a lavish home near Mount Vernon Square in the District of Columbia and socialized in the highest circles of the “black 400.”55 Several black Representatives lived in the upper-class black neighborhoods near Howard University.

National Capitol 2004_087_018/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_capitol-_1860_hc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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When the first black Members of Congress arrived in Washington, DC, they found a majestic, marble Capitol with a massive dome completed during the Civil War.
Other black Representatives lived in upscale boarding houses and homes near Lafayette Square and on Capitol Hill.56 In the 42nd Congress, Benjamin Turner of Alabama and Josiah Walls occupied the same boarding house on 14th Street in the northwest section of the city, near Franklin Park. The two were close neighbors to Joseph Rainey and to prominent Republicans including Speaker James G. Blaine of Maine as well as Senator Sumner and Representatives Benjamin Butler and George Hoar, all of Massachusetts.57

Yet African Americans in Congress during the Reconstruction Era also experienced widespread discrimination. In an 1874 newspaper interview, Joseph Rainey documented the second-class treatment he and his colleagues received in Washington. He noted that black Representatives were forced to pay higher rent and higher prices at local restaurants.58 “Why is it that colored members of Congress cannot enjoy the same immunities that are accorded to white members?” Rainey asked on the House Floor. “We are here enacting laws for the country and casting votes upon important questions; we have been sent here by the suffrages of the people.”59

A defining feature of the experience of black Congressmen on Capitol Hill in the 19th century was their relative isolation. Only a handful of black Representatives served at any given time, and the two black Senators did not serve together. The apex of black Membership in Congress during the 19th century was, ironically, in the Democrat-controlled House during the 44th Congress. Seven African Americans served in the House and Blanche Bruce kept his seat in the Senate. Because of their small number and because they were a relative novelty, these men were often under the glare of public scrutiny. When the African-American Congressmen arrived in Washington, they faced skepticism of their ability to fulfill their duties. “When the first black man took his place in the House of Congress, Americans looked on with wide-opened mouths and eyes, with caustic criticism,” Marie Le Baron reported for the St. Louis Daily Globe in the opening paragraph of her piece profiling the Members of the 43rd Congress. Skeptics, she continued, held “openly expressed doubts of his ability to retain and fill the place of honor, and creditably to himself and to the white nation.”60

Heroes of the Colored Race/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_bruce_douglas_revels_LC-USZC2-1720.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.
Black Congressmen typically received high marks for their performance from Republicans, who generally welcomed their colleagues to their respective chambers. Speaker Blaine later praised his black colleagues in his memoirs. “They were as a rule, studious, earnest, ambitious men,” wrote Blaine, “whose public conduct . . . would be honorable to any race.”61 Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York escorted Senator Blanche Bruce to his swearing-in, beginning a lifelong friendship. Conkling coached Bruce in Senate procedure and procured him advantageous committee assignments. Bruce named his only child for the New York Senator.

Though floor debate remained civil for the most part, black Representatives occasionally encountered the patronizing attitude of their opposition. A northern Democrat, New York Representative Samuel Cox was consistently adversarial. Representative Hoar once noted that the black Members had in Cox “the most formidable antagonist, perhaps the most trained and experienced debater in the House.”62 In a memorable run-in with the New York Democrat, Joseph Rainey attempted to interrupt Cox’s scathing remarks regarding Republican governments in South Carolina. Cox responded with a patronizing, “Oh honey, sit down,” eliciting laughter from the chamber.63 Chairman of the Committee on Elections in the 44th and 45th Congresses, Virginia Democrat John Harris also harangued the black Representatives. In a floor debate on January 5, 1874, Harris rhetorically asked, “Is there not one gentleman on the floor who can honestly say he really believes that the colored man is created his equal?” Alonzo Ransier quietly replied with a simple, “I can,” to which a flustered Harris retorted, “Of course you can; but I am speaking to the white men of the House; and, Mr. Speaker, I do not wish to be interrupted again by him.”64 Another Democrat, John Brown—a young, wealthy, outspoken Member from Kentucky—regularly ignored the black Members and refused to yield to them in debate.65Richard Cain made light of the fact that blacks were often treated as inferiors in Congress. “We believe that we are made just like white men,” he said. “Look; I stretch out my arms. See; I have two of them, as you have. Look at your ears; I have two of them. I have two eyes, two nostrils, one mouth, two feet. I stand erect like you. I am clothed in humanity like you. I think, I reason, I talk . . . Is there any difference between us? Not so far as our manhood is concerned.”66

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54The New York Times reports that, according to the 1870 Census, the total black population of the District of Columbia was 43,404. See “The Census of 1870,” 8 July 1871, New York Times.

55Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: 38–68; Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 101.

56Boarding houses were common lodging for Congressmen, who often spent the short sessions in Washington living away from their families. Congressmen often depended on one another, as well as their neighbors, as social companions during their months in Washington. See Tom Shroder, “Out of the Mud,” 8 December 2002, WashingtonPost Magazine: 20–27, 41–48.

57Congressional Directory, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872): 120–125.

58James Whyte, The Uncivil War: Washington During the Reconstruction, 1865–1878 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1958): 242–243.

59Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (19 December 1873): 344.

60Marie Le Baron, “Colored Congressmen,” 12 April 1874, St. Louis Daily Globe: 3.

61James G. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congress From Lincoln to Garfield, Volume 2 (Norwich, CT: Henry Bill Publishing Co., 1886): 515.

62Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (15 July 1876): 4641–4644.

63Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (18 July 1876): 4707.

64Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 January 1874): 376.

65Kirt H. Wilson, The Reconstruction Desegregation Debate: The Politics of Equality and the Rhetoric of Place, 1870–1875 (East Lansing: Michigan State University Press, 2002): 25.

66Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (24 January 1874): 901–903.