Washington Experience

During the Reconstruction Era, Washington, DC, was home to one of the country’s most expansive and elite black communities. In the postwar years, many well-educated and wealthy African Americans moved to the nation’s capital to escape the violence of the Deep South and to seek better opportunities outside the crowded commercial hubs of Boston and Philadelphia. The city touted cultural opportunities, government employment, and relative economic security, as well as one of the country’s premier black colleges: Howard University. In total, about 40,000 African Americans lived in the city after the war; many had been formerly enslaved and sought refuge there following emancipation.52

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 city’s black community.53 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. The Capitol, like many federal office buildings at the time, had been built by enslaved African-American laborers.
Other black Representatives lived in upscale boarding houses and homes close to Lafayette Square near the White House and on Capitol Hill.54 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 Charles Sumner and Representatives Benjamin Butler and George Hoar, all of Massachusetts.55

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.56 “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.”57

Mississippi Representative John Roy Lynch suffered additional humiliation when traveling with his colleagues. In 1873, as officials in St. Louis lobbied to move the nation’s capital to Missouri, they invited western and southern Members to visit their state’s capital city. “I decided to accept the invitation,” Lynch later recalled, “but found out after I arrived there that I had made a mistake in doing so.”58 After arriving on a late train at three o’clock in the morning without a welcoming committee, a weary Lynch made his way to the hotel assigned to the Mississippi delegation, only to be informed by the night clerk that the delegation had moved to a different location. A skeptical Lynch traveled to the second hotel, only to be redirected to the first. “I then realized for the first time the actual situation,” Lynch observed; he had been shut out of both hotels because of his race.59 Lynch spent the night traveling from hotel to hotel, ferried by recalcitrant taxi drivers. Even sympathetic proprietors—when presented with Lynch’s credentials and invitation—were afraid of losing business should they rent Lynch a room. When Lynch decided to play up his Irish heritage—Lynch’s white father had immigrated from Ireland and managed the plantation where his mother was enslaved—one proprietor rented him a room in one of fanciest hotels in the city under the condition that he eat his meals in his room out of view from other guests. Though the St. Louis welcoming committee attempted to repair their city’s damaged reputation (they managed to convince Lynch to stay the full three days) local newspapers reported Lynch’s story.60 “I must say that my stay there did not favorably impress me with the idea that Saint Louis was a desirable place for the national capital,” Lynch concluded.61 He left determined to vote against any measure to move the capital. The issue, however, never came up for a vote in the House.

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 who served during this era did not serve together. The apex of black Membership in Congress during the 19th century was, ironically, during the 44th Congress when Democrats controlled the House. Seven African Americans, all Republicans, served in the House and Blanche K. Bruce kept his seat in the Senate.

Because of their small number and because they were breaking down barriers in American society, these men were often under the glare of public scrutiny. When African-American Congressmen arrived in Washington, many observers doubted they could do their jobs. “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, “openly expressed doubts of his ability to retain and fill the place of honor, and creditably to himself and to the white nation.”62

Heroes of the Colored Race/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_bruce_douglas_revels_LC-USZC2-1720.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress “Heroes of the Colored Race,” a print published by J. Hoover of Philadelphia in 1881, features Senator Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi, orator Frederick Douglass, and Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi. The vignettes depict 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.
African-American Congressmen during Reconstruction 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.”63 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 debate on the House Floor remained civil for the most part, Democrats regularly patronized black Republicans. A northern Democrat, New York Representative Samuel “Sunset” 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.”64 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 condescending, “Oh honey, sit down,” eliciting laughter from the chamber.65

Virginia Democrat John Harris, chairman of the Committee on Elections in the 44th and 45th Congresses, also harangued his African-American colleagues. 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, who grew up in Charleston, South Carolina’s free black community, 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.”66 Another Democrat, John Brown—a young, wealthy, outspoken Member from Kentucky—regularly ignored the black Members and refused to yield to them in debate.67

Richard Cain, who had been born into freedom and later moved to South Carolina, ridiculed the fact that African Americans 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.”68

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52The 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.

53Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: 38–68; Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 101.

54Boarding 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 the nation’s capital. See Tom Shroder, “Out of the Mud,” 8 December 2002, Washington Post Magazine: 20–27, 41–48.

55Congressional Directory, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1872): 120–125.

56James Whyte, The Uncivil War: Washington During the Reconstruction, 1865–1878 (New York: Twayne Publishers, 1958): 242–243.

57Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (19 December 1873): 344.

58Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: 107.

59Ibid., 108.

60See, for example, “A Negro at the Southern Hotel,” 18 May 1873, Sedalia Democrat (Sedalia, MO): 2. This newspaper did not support the hotel’s decision to house Lynch, but the article references more sympathetic stories in “loyal” newspapers.

61Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: 111.

62Marie Le Baron, “Colored Congressmen,” 12 April 1874, St. Louis Daily Globe: 3.

63James G. Blaine, Twenty Years of Congress From Lincoln to Garfield, vol. 2 (Norwich, CT: Henry Bill Publishing Co., 1886): 515.

64Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (15 July 1876): 4641–4644.

65Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (18 July 1876): 4707.

66Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (5 January 1874): 376.

67Kirt 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.

68Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (24 January 1874): 901–903.