The Fifteenth Amendment in Flesh and Blood: The Symbolic Generation of Black Americans in Congress, 1870–1887

Joseph Rainey/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_rainey_hc.xml Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
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Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, the first black Representative in Congress, earned the distinction of also being the first black man to preside over a session of the House, in April 1874.
On January 20, 1870, the Mississippi state legislature appointed Hiram Revels to a seat in the U.S. Senate that had remained vacant ever since Mississippi seceded from the Union nearly a decade earlier. Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi—a North Carolina–born preacher and the first African American to serve in Congress—personified the promises of African-American emancipation and enfranchisement. When Revels later toured the United States, he was introduced as the “Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood.”1

Jefferson Davis and Hiram Revels/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_harpers_revels_with_jeff_davis_LC_USZ62_108004.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In this print from an issue of Harper’s Weekly in 1870, Jefferson Davis’s ghost lurks in the Senate Chamber, observing the swearing-in of the first black Senator, Hiram Revels of Mississippi. Revels’s importance is given Shakespearean proportions as Davis quotes the villain Iago from the play Othello. This print was drawn by artist Thomas Nast, who sympathized with Radical Republicans in Congress.
Five weeks after Revels’ appointment, as Senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts escorted him to the front of the Senate chamber to take his oath on February 25, 1870, the Atlanta Constitution reported that “the crowded galleries rose almost en masse, and each particular neck was stretched to its uttermost to get a view. A curious crowd (colored and white) rushed into the Senate chamber and gazed at the colored senator, some of them congratulating him. A very respectable looking, well dressed company of colored men and women then came up and took Revels captive, and bore him off in glee and triumph.”2 The next day, the Chicago Tribune jubilantly declared that “the first letter with the frank of a negro was dropped in the Capitol Post Office.”3 Revels’s personal triumph was short-lived; when his appointment expired the following year, a leading white Republican, former Confederate general James Alcorn, took his place for a full six-year term. But by then Joseph Rainey, an African-American Republican from South Carolina, had won election to the House, beginning what would become an eight-and-a-half-year career in Congress.

In many respects, Revels’s service foreshadowed that of the black Representatives who succeeded him during Reconstruction—a period of Republican-led efforts to reshape the South and reintegrate it into the Union. They, too, were largely symbols of the Union’s victory in the Civil War and of the triumph of Radical Republican idealism in Congress. “[The African-American Members] have displaced the more noisy ‘old masters’ of the past,” a reporter with the Chicago Tribune wrote, “and, in their presence in [Congress], vindicate [sic] the safety of the Union which is incident to the broadest freedom in political privileges.”4

The African-American Representatives also symbolized a new democratic order in the United States. These men demonstrated not only unimaginable courage, but also relentless determination. They often braved elections marred by violence and fraud. With nuance and tact they balanced the needs of black and white constituents in their Southern districts, and they argued passionately for legislation promoting racial equality. But even in South Carolina, a state that was seemingly dominated by black politicians after the Civil War, African-American Members never achieved the level of power wielded by their white colleagues during Reconstruction. Though marginalized in Congress, these earliest black Representatives nevertheless believed they had an important role as advocates for the United States’s newest citizens.

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1Quoted in Maurine Christopher, Black Americans in Congress (New York: Thomas Y. Crowell Company, 1976): 9. Revels seems to attribute this quote to Massachusetts journalist Wendell Phillips. See also “Autobiography of Hiram Revels,” Carter G. Woodson Collection of Negro Papers and Related Documents, box 11, Manuscript Division, Library of Congress, Washington, DC. U.S. Senators were elected by state legislatures until 1913, when the adoption of the Seventeenth Amendment required their direct election. In 1861 both Mississippi Senators resigned from Congress after their state seceded from the Union. After the Civil War the Northern victors were quick to elevate Revels’s place in the chamber, pointing out that he now represented the state that once elected Confederate president Jefferson Davis; they played their message so well that contemporary newspapers and many historians mistakenly place Revels in Davis’s former seat. Revels instead held the seat formerly occupied by Senator Albert Gallatin Brown of Mississippi. See, for example, Congressional Globe, Senate, 41st Cong., 2nd sess. (23 February 1870): 1513; Gath, “Washington,” 17 March 1870, Chicago Tribune: 2; Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 5–6; Stephen Middleton, ed., Black Congressmen During Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002): 320.

2“The Negro United States Senator,” 3 March 1870, Atlanta Constitution: 3.

3“Washington,” 27 February 1870, Chicago Tribune: 1.

4“The Negro in Congress,” 7 March 1871, Chicago Tribune: 2.