In former Confederate states, black-majority districts were essential for electing African-American Representatives, especially in South Carolina, which elected relatively large numbers of black Members. Only one black Member during this era served a district whose population was less than 50 percent black: James Rapier represented, for one term, a southeastern Alabama district with a population that was 44 percent black.40 The rest served districts with populations that were typically at least 60 percent African-American. With Republicans in control of state legislatures across the former Confederacy during Reconstruction, the GOP drew congressional districts favorable to Republicans in order to boost the party’s national strength upon their return to the Union. As speaker of the Mississippi state assembly in 1872, for instance, John Lynch reapportioned the state’s six seats in the U.S. House of Representatives, creating five Republican-dominated districts. Later that year, he won a coastal seat with a majority-black (55 percent) population.
South Carolina was, arguably, the crucible of the black congressional experience in the Reconstruction South; six of the 17 black Americans to serve in Congress during Reconstruction were from the Palmetto State. This number alone, however, fails to convey South Carolina’s influence on black service in the Capitol during the 19th century. From 1870 to 1887, South Carolina sent at least one black Representative to the House in all but one Congress, the 46th Congress (1879–1881), during which no black men from any state served in the House. In the 42nd Congress (1871–1873), all but one of the state’s four congressional districts were represented by black men. Richard Cain’s election as an At-Large Representative (representing the entire state) in the following Congress meant five out of six South Carolina Representatives were black.
South Carolina’s large proportion of black Members during this era was due to a number of factors. For starters, Union forces captured some of the South Carolina Sea Islands as early as 1861, emancipating the large enslaved populations there and providing early educational and economic opportunities which quickly translated to political organization. Led by a mixed-race elite, black Charlestonians also organized quickly after the war’s end. In September 1865, the South Carolina state legislature passed a series of restrictive Black Codes that attempted to limit black employment, movement, and lifestyle. In response, black South Carolinians organized a statewide Colored Peoples Convention in November to protest the new laws. Several future South Carolina Members of Congress featured prominently at the convention, including Joseph Rainey, Robert De Large, Alonzo Ransier, and Richard Cain. Their protest proved successful: In early 1866 the new military commander of South Carolina, Union General Daniel Sickles, nullified the Black Codes. After the Fifteenth Amendment became law, the Republican Party quickly marshaled the large, organized, African-American population on the South Carolina coast into a dominant voting bloc.41 Unlike in other states, where white Republicans began stripping power from black Republicans, black South Carolinians maintained a majority in the state legislature from 1868 to 1876. Black presiding officers reigned in the state house of representatives from 1872 to 1876. In fact, Robert Elliott resigned his seat in Congress to take over the state speakership in 1874.
Black congressional candidates still faced monumental electoral obstacles, despite having majorities of black and Republican voters in their districts. Violence, brutality, murder, and intimidation were commonplace during congressional campaigns in the postwar South. A variety of white supremacist groups existed across the former Confederacy, the most notorious being the Ku Klux Klan (KKK). Red Shirts and Rifle Clubs operated out of South Carolina. White Leagues also flourished in the South.42 White supremacists threatened and often killed black voters and attacked the candidates during campaigns. The violent campaigns in the South also led to an influx of contested elections in the House as candidates and their supporters questioned the legitimacy of the results. The House Committee on Elections handled an unusually heavy caseload during the Reconstruction Era. Established in 1789, the committee was charged with rendering judgments on disputed elections based on evidence and witness testimony. Members of the panel heard each candidate’s evidence asserting his right to the seat. The committee voted for its choice candidate and reported its findings to the whole House for a final vote. Usually, the candidate representing the majority party had a distinct advantage because votes within the committee and on the House Floor were often decided along party lines.43 Sixty percent of cases heard by the committee between 1867 and 1911 were from the former Confederacy—a percentage that only underscored the violence given that Confederate states constituted only around 25 percent of the House.44
Though every southern state experienced violent elections, Alabama was the center of KKK activity. In September 1868, Klansmen forced James Rapier to flee his home under threat of violence; as a political refugee in his own state, Rapier was forced to hide out in a boardinghouse in Montgomery, Alabama, for a year. Seeking re-election in 1874 to his southeastern Alabama district, Rapier faced stolen and destroyed ballot boxes, bribery, fraudulent vote counts, armed intimidation, and murder. Terrified, black voters stayed home, and Rapier lost the election.45 In central Alabama that year, African-American candidate Jeremiah Haralson failed to garner more than 700 votes in a district whose population was more than 80 percent black. After more than a decade of lawlessness and violence in the state, the New York Times observed in 1884 that “the Democrats will always win in Alabama, no matter how great the preponderance of the black voting population.”46
In 1874 Representative John Lynch defied the odds and won re-election after Mississippi Democrats vowed to recapture the state government. “The Democrats were bold, outspoken, defiant, and determined,” Lynch remarked. “I noticed that I was not received and greeted.” Mississippi Democratic clubs were converted into “armed military companies” that raided his Republican meetings.47 At an evening speech in Vicksburg, Lynch was nearly crushed in a stampede after someone cut the lights and terrified people fled the venue.48 Lynch was the only Republican to survive a Democratic sweep in the polls in Mississippi. “It would be a source of personal pride and congratulation if I could declare upon the floor of the House of Representatives today that mob-law and violence do not exist in any part of the South and are not tolerated by any portion of its citizens,” Lynch said. “The circumstances are such that the facts would not sustain me in making this declaration.”49 Senator Blanche Bruce made a similar observation. Having witnessed White League intimidation, Bruce warned his colleagues that “violence so unprovoked . . . is a spectacle not only discreditable to the country, but is dangerous to the integrity of our free institutions.”50
Black Representatives in the Reconstruction Era routinely had their elections challenged by white opponents. Contested elections were an issue from the start and prevented the seating of the first African American to win a congressional election. On October 4, 1868, John Willis Menard, an Illinois-born mixed-race newspaper editor who had held several GOP patronage positions since 1862, declared his candidacy for a special election to fill a vacant New Orleans, Louisiana, seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Though he won the special election with 65 percent of the vote, his opponent, Democrat Caleb Hunt, contested the results, and the House Committee on Elections declared the seat vacant. Menard defended his right to take office, and on February 27, 1869, became the first African American to speak before the House while it was in session. Five other black men—Robert De Large, Joseph Rainey, Josiah Walls, Richard Cain, and Robert Smalls—all lost contested elections. In 1876 Rainey and Smalls retained their seats, despite the ruling of the Committee on Elections, because the House never took up their cases for a full vote. Five black Members contested six separate elections they ostensibly lost. Only John Lynch and Robert Smalls successfully contested their 1880 electoral losses before the majority Republican 47th Congress (1881–1883).51
Black Members forced to defend their seats during contested election investigations lost valuable time in introducing legislation or speaking on the House Floor. As the enormous caseload trickled through the Committee on Elections, the panel often delayed its deliberations until late in the second session. Josiah Walls, for instance, saw his political career routinely derailed by contested elections. The Ku Klux Klan, entrenched near his northern Florida home, managed to unseat him twice by running ex-Confederate generals against him in contests for an At-Large seat. Preoccupied with defending his seat, Walls was unable to legislate at all in the 44th Congress (1875–1877).
40Stanley B. Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1843–1883 (New York: Greenwood Press, 1986): 146. Ultimately, Rapier left his seat after one term to run against Representative Jeremiah Haralson in a neighboring black-majority district. Josiah Walls also served as an At-Large Representative in Florida—with a population that was 44 percent black—in the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). See Parsons et al., United States Congressional Districts, 1843–1883: 99. Senators Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce were both elected to the Senate by Republican majority state legislatures in Mississippi, a state whose population was more than 50 percent black in 1870. See Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: xiii.
41Okun Edet Uya, From Slavery to Political Service: Robert Smalls, 1839–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971): 32–36; Powers, Black Charlestonians: 81–85; Williamson, After Slavery: 371.
42For more names and state affiliations of white supremacist groups, see Franklin and Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: 275.
43In response to the growing number of contested elections, the Senate created its Committee on Privileges and Elections on March 10, 1871. See David T. Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789 to 1946, vol. 2 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly Press, 2002): 253–257.
44Jeffrey A. Jenkins, “Partisanship and Contested Election Cases in the House of Representatives, 1789–1902,” Studies in American Political Development 18 (Fall 2004): 130.
45Loren Schweninger, “James T. Rapier of Alabama and the Noble Cause of Reconstruction,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era: 86; Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: 230.
46“The Election in Alabama,” 29 November 1884, New York Times: 1.
47John Roy Lynch, Reminiscences of an Active Life: The Autobiography of John Roy Lynch, ed. John Hope Franklin (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1970): 163–166.
48John Hope Franklin, “John Roy Lynch: Republican Stalwart from Mississippi,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era: 47.
49Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (13 June 1876): 3781–3786.
50Congressional Record, Senate, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (31 March 1876): 2101–2105.
51Chester H. Rowell, A Historical and Legal Digest of All the Contested Election Cases (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901). Though Rowell offers one of the most comprehensive sources on the activities of the Committee on Elections for this era, his data are incomplete. At least six contested elections involving black men are missing from his volume. This count also includes those whose seats were declared vacant.