Legislative Interests 

Private Legislation

African-American Congressmen focused on serving their constituents and, on average, introduced 15 bills during their individual careers; around 70 percent of these were private bills—legislation intended for the specific benefit or relief of a private individual or institution.69 Focus on private legislation was not all that unusual for Members of Congress during this period; this class of bills made up more than half of the legislation passed by Congress between 1869 and 1887.70 Before the establishment of the U.S. Court of Federal Claims and the 1946 Legislative Reorganization Act, private bills were the primary method by which Members of Congress aided constituents in making small claims against the federal government, most often collecting federal pensions and correcting military records.71

Only about four percent of African-American Members submitted legislation that became law (all of which were private bills); this is about half the success rate enjoyed by Members as a whole for this period.72 Before the General Amnesty Act passed in 1872, many African-American legislators sought relief of political and civil disabilities for former Confederates. Afterward, most private legislation pursued by African-American Members granted pensions to former Civil War soldiers or their families, many of whom served in all-black regiments of the Union Army.

Three black Members in particular were successful at seeing their legislation to passage. Benjamin Turner of Alabama had two private bills become law in the 42nd Congress: Both granted pensions to Civil War soldiers, one of whom was identified as African American.73Robert Smalls of South Carolina also obtained four pensions for families of deceased Civil War soldiers (at least one of whom was African American).74 Smalls’s most famous private bill, however, fell short. In the 49th Congress, he submitted a bill to grant a pension to Maria Hunter—the widow of the late Union General David Hunter, who had called for the immediate emancipation of enslaved men and women in Union-occupied territory. President Grover Cleveland vetoed the bill—among a string of pension bill vetoes—noting that her application was still pending at the Pension Bureau.75 The House failed to override the veto with a 111 to 108 vote.76James O’ Hara of North Carolina successfully obtained pensions for two other dependents of deceased African-American Civil War veterans and, additionally, passed a bill reuniting the remains of one widow with her husband.77

O’Hara was also among several Members who sought private legislation benefitting one of his colleagues: Robert Smalls. During the Civil War, while still enslaved, Smalls commandeered a Confederate transport ship, the Planter, sailed it out of Charleston harbor under the cloak of darkness, and turned it over to the Union naval blockade. Smalls’s black House colleagues repeatedly sought compensation for him equal to the value of the ship as a reward for his actions more than 20 years earlier. O’Hara was the first of many black Congressmen to submit such a bill in the 49th Congress (1885–1887); Smalls eventually received a sum of $5,000 in 1900.78

Committee Service

Blanche Bruce/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_blanche-_bruce_smithsonian_AC0618_004_0000653.xml Image courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution The second African American to serve as a Senator, Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi later noted that success in the Senate required managing his relationship with all of his colleagues: “The novelty of my position [compels me] to cultivate and exhibit my honorable associates a courtesy that would inspire reciprocal courtesy.”
The committee assignments African-American Members received also underscored how the institution worked to restrict their power. Most black Members had low-ranking committee assignments. Although Richard Cain and Robert Smalls served on the prestigious Agriculture Committee, their power was limited by a host of influences, including their lack of seniority.79 Certainly, the brevity of African-American careers during this era contributed to their lack of seniority and influence on committees, but it does not fully explain their inability to secure prominent committee assignments.80

Often, clear institutional discrimination prevented African Americans from accruing more power in committees. Moreover, most black Representatives had little access to party leaders who made committee assignments. Even the longest-serving black Member of the period, Joseph Rainey, gained little seniority despite serving nine years in Congress: GOP leadership consistently assigned Rainey a rank lower than his seniority permitted. Most blatantly, Rainey was the last-ranking Republican Member on the newly created Select Committee on the Freedmen’s Bank in the 44th Congress, despite having served in the House longer than any other Member on the committee.81 No African-American Member during this era chaired any House standing committee. Blanche Bruce chaired two select committees in the Senate: the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company and the Select Committee on Levees of the Mississippi River, which oversaw development of the river’s delta region.82

The House and Senate Education and Labor Committees were the most common assignments for black Congressmen.83 Senators Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce served on the Senate panel, and five African-American Members took seats on the equivalent House committee.

First Colored Congressmen/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_first_reps_senator_41st_-442nd_-LC_USZC2_2325.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress This famous print titled “The first colored senator and representatives—in the 41st and 42nd Congress of the United States” was published by Currier & Ives in 1872. The group portrait assembles Robert De Large of South Carolina, Jefferson Long of Georgia, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Josiah Walls of Florida, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, and Robert Elliott of South Carolina.
From a policy standpoint, African-American Congressmen during this era strongly supported the sale of federally owned land in the South and West as a way to fund public education. But even congressional allies considered such a program controversial. Opponents of the idea feared federal funding for schools would impede states’ rights and they blocked the efforts by black Members to enact such legislation. But Josiah Walls, one of the most vocal supporters of the proposal, insisted that the national government had the responsibility to provide funding for African-American education in the South because southern state governments would not act. “It is useless to talk about patriotism existing in those states . . . who now and always have believed that it was wrong to educate the Negro and that such offenses should be punishable by death or a lash,” Walls said. “Away with the patriotism that advocates and prefers ignorance to intelligence!” Joseph Rainey even went so far as to support a $1 poll tax (which would have disfranchised many newly freed African Americans) to directly fund public education in the former slave states. “Do you suppose I want my two children hindered in the enjoyment of educational opportunities in this country,” Rainey asked, “merely on account of their color when we are taxed to support those schools?”84

Absent key committee assignments and leadership positions, the relatively small number of black Members lacked the influence to drive a legislative agenda. Most introduced bills on the House or the Senate Floor only to have them die in committee. The near-universal desire among black Congressmen to reimburse African Americans who had lost their savings when the Freedmen’s Bank collapsed illustrates how both the House and the Senate rebuffed the tireless efforts of black legislators. Congress established the Freedmen’s Bank in 1865 to help newly freed slaves manage their money, but overextended loans and rampant corruption depleted the bank’s $57 million in deposits, forcing it to close in 1874. Mismanagement and a lack of resources continued after the bank’s failure. Three commissioners were appointed to reimburse depositors but were quickly criticized for failing to do so. The bank’s failure had far-reaching effects on black businesses that continued well into the late 1890s.85

Nearly every black Member of Congress sponsored a bill to provide financial relief to African Americans who lost their savings when the Freedmen’s Bank failed. Some were even depositors themselves. “Sir, there is no one upon this floor who could feel a deeper interest in this subject than I feel,” Joseph Rainey said in an 1875 speech. “I myself have been a depositor in this bank, and have incurred losses through it, and therefore I think that I have a right to have an opinion in this matter, not as it applies to myself, but to those others who made the largest deposits in the bank.”86 Opponents jeered at African-American financial losses, viewing the bank’s failure as a lesson to freedmen. Arguing that reimbursing depositors would set dangerous precedent and “must not be contemplated for the moment,” a reporter from the Chicago Tribune patronizingly observed: “It will also be better that the negroes acquire some self-reliance. The natural reward of ignorance is deception, loss, and suffering. But the lesson in this case will have been lost if the Government assume [sic] the liabilities of the Freedman’s Bank.”87

No one was a greater advocate for aiding depositors than Senator Blanche Bruce, who took the reins of the Select Committee to Investigate the Freedmen’s Savings and Trust Company in April 1879. Although Bruce’s committee was unable to convince the Senate to reimburse depositors, Bruce used some of his own personal fortune as well as his political clout to raise funds to reimburse a small portion of depositors.88

Discriminated against at nearly every turn, African Americans in Congress during Reconstruction saw their legislative hopes routinely dashed by their white colleagues. When they could, African-American Representatives and Senators advocated for reform legislation and provided firsthand accounts of civil rights abuses as a way to try and sway public opinion. Where Congress’s true power lay—behind the closed doors of committee meetings and markup sessions—African-American Members, despite their tireless efforts, had virtually no influence.

Ku Klux Klan and Amnesty Acts

KKK Bill/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_grant_signing_kkk_bill_1871_frank_leslie_lc_usz6287440.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress On April 20, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant, shown with Secretary of the Navy George M. Robeson and presidential advisor General Horace Porter in this Frank Leslie’s Illustrated print, signed the Third Ku Klux Klan Act, which enforced the 14th Amendment by guaranteeing all citizens of the United States the rights afforded by the Constitution and providing legal protection under the law.
Among other issues, the Reconstruction-Era Congresses focused on curbing racial violence that afflicted the postwar South. During the 41st and 42nd Congresses (1869–1873), vicious and disturbing reports about Klan violence and brutal white supremacy in the former Confederacy inspired congressional leaders to pass a series of three Ku Klux Klan Acts (also known as the Force Acts).89 The first reinforced the Fifteenth Amendment (universal manhood suffrage); the second placed all southern elections under federal control; and the third protected the voter registration and justice system from infiltration and intimidation by Klansmen. The six black Members who served in the Congresses in which these bills were considered and whose elections were marred by extrajudicial violence nearly universally supported the legislation.90 “If you cannot now protect the loyal men of the South,” Robert Elliott warned in April 1871, “then have the loyal people of this great Republic done and suffered much in vain, and your free Constitution is a mockery and a snare.”91

Yet Congress softened the forceful nature of the Ku Klux Klan legislation by enacting generous pardons for former Confederates. The bill offered near blanket amnesty; only former public servants and military personnel who resigned their positions to join the Confederacy were ineligible for what amounted to a large public pardon. When the bill finally came to a vote in May of 1872, Senator Hiram Revels and Representatives Robert Elliott, Joseph Rainey, Robert De Large, and Benjamin Turner supported the bill though most did so with caveats.92 “We are desirous, sir, of being magnanimous,” Rainey told his congressional colleagues. “We have open and frank hearts toward those who were our former oppressors and taskmasters. We foster no enmity now, and we desire to foster none for their acts in the past to us, nor to the Government we love so well.”93

Rainey was among those who supported amnesty provided that the House consider a new civil rights bill. Led by Robert Elliott, African-American Members attempted to direct the Judiciary Committee to report a civil rights bill for debate right after the voice vote on the amnesty bill, but the House failed to take it up.94 Robert De Large pledged his support only if former Confederates swore a formal oath of allegiance to the Union. One of the more conservative black politicians, Benjamin Turner of Alabama, who had once been enslaved, wanted to move past the war and instead focused his efforts on procuring economic aid for his war-torn state. “I have no coals of fiery reproach to heap upon [former Confederates] now,” Turner informed his congressional colleagues. “Rather would I extend the olive branch of peace, and say to them, let the past be forgotten.”95 Not all black Members agreed, however. Representative Jefferson Long of Georgia, for instance, wanted Congress to solidify black rights in the South before restoring former Confederates to full political participation; as a result, he did not support the earlier version of the amnesty bill in 1871.

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69Early House precedents indicate that the distinction between private and public legislation was at the determination of the Speaker of the House. House Manuals from the era define private legislation as “for the interest of individuals, public companies or corporations, a parish, city, or county, or other locality.” See, for example, Hinds Precedents of the House of Representatives, vol. 4 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1907): 247.

70Bureau of the Census, U.S. Department of Commerce, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970, Part 1 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1975): 15–16; see table, “Congressional Bills, Acts, and Resolutions, 1789 to 1970.”

71For a comprehensive history of the use of private legislation, see Congressional Quarterly, Guide to Congress, 6th ed., vol. 1 (Washington, DC: Congressional Quarterly, Inc., 2008): 614–615.

72Statistics on legislation submitted by African-American Members of Congress were determined using the Congressional Globe and Congressional Record indexes for this period. Statistics for Congress as a whole are from Bureau of the Census, Historical Statistics of the United States, Colonial Times to 1970: 15–16. Using these statistics, we calculated that an average of 9 percent of bills passed from the 41st Congress to the 49th Congress (1869–1887).

73Granting a Pension to Robert H. Brown, of Adair County, Missouri, H.R. 2470, 42nd Cong. (1872), 17 Stat. 733; Granting a Pension to Daniel Wooden, H.R. 2546, 42nd Cong. (1872), 17 Stat. 725.

74For the Relief of Mrs. Ida B. Fletcher, H.R. 7836, 48th Cong., (1885), 23 Stat. 690; For the Relief of Jane M. Langley, H.R. 2254, 49th Cong. (1886), 24 Stat. 726; For the Relief of Mrs. Sallie Ancrum, H.R. 7168, 49th Cong. (1886), 24 Stat. 797; To Grant a Pension to James Robinson, H.R. 7169, 49th Cong. (1886), 24 Stat. 866.

75Grover Cleveland, “Veto Message,” 23 June 1886, American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=71346 (accessed 21 September 2018); “Cleveland as a Clown,” 1 July 1886, Chicago Tribune: 1. O’Hara, not Smalls, managed the bill for the attempted veto override.

76For the Relief of Mrs. Maria Hunter, H.R. 7167, 49th Cong. (1886).

77Granting a Pension to Charles Foreman, H.R. 6193, 49th Cong. (1886), 24 Stat. 808; Granting a Pension to Nelly Roberts, H.R. 1142, 48th Cong. (1885), 23 Stat. 683; Authorizing the Secretary of War to Allow the Internment in the National Cemetery at New Berne, in the State of North Carolina, of the Remains of the Late Mrs. Harriet B. Lehman, H.R. 7364, 49th Cong. (1886), 24 Stat. 829. O’Hara also had a bill fall to veto: President Grover Cleveland vetoed H.R. 6192 in the 49th Congress seeking a pension for Mary Norman, widow to an African-American Civil War veteran who died after the war. The House never held an override vote. Grover Cleveland “Veto Message,” 23 June 1886, American Presidency Project, ed. John T. Woolley and Gerhard Peters, http://www.presidency.ucsb.edu/ws/?pid=71362 (accessed 21 September 2018).

78Authorizing a Reappraisement of the Steam-Transport Boat Planter, Captured by Robert Smalls, and for a Distribution of Proceeds thereof, H.R. 1696, 49th Cong. (1886); Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 1st sess. (18 May 1900): 5715.

79No black member of the Agriculture Committee rose above the second-to-last ranking GOP Member. For more information, see Stewart, “Committee Hierarchies in the Modernizing House, 1875–1947,” American Journal of Political Science 36 (1992): 845–846. See also Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789 to 1946, vol. 3.

80By the mid-19th century, and especially in the post–Civil War era in the House, length of service began to determine committee hierarchy: the more terms in Congress, the higher the rank. But this process of centralization within the House evolved slowly, and, until the 1910s, seniority was not the primary determinant of committee hierarchy. On the general topic of centralization of power in the House, which gave rise to the hierarchical committee system, see Peter Swenson, “The Influence of Recruitment on the Structure of Power in the U.S. House, 1870–1940,” Legislative Studies Quarterly VII (February 1982): 7–36. For an analysis of committee seniority, see Michael Aboam and Joseph Cooper, “The Rise of Seniority in the House of Representatives,” Polity 1 (Fall 1968): 52–84. For an analysis of factors that mitigate seniority as the determining factor in committee hierarchy as well as a discussion of when the seniority system solidified in the House, see Nelson Polsby, Miriam Gallaher, and Barry S. Rundquist, “The Growth of the Seniority System in the U.S. House of Representatives,” American Political Science Review 63 (September 1969): 787–807.

81Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789 to 1946, vol. 4: 295.

82Although the Committee on Invalid Pensions did not have official subcommittees, Representative James O’Hara led a subcommittee in charge of considering H.R. 6485 in the 49th Congress. See Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Black Americans Who Have Chaired Subcommittees of Standing Committees in the U.S. House and Senate, 1885–Present.”

83The names and jurisdictions of these panels changed during the Reconstruction Era. In the House, the Education and Labor Committee was created in 1867 but was terminated in 1883 in favor of a Committee on Education and a Committee on Labor. In the Senate, the Education Committee was established in 1869 and was renamed the Committee on Education and Labor one year later. See Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789 to 1946, vol. 1: 65; Canon et al., Committees in the U.S. Congress, 1789 to 1946, vol. 2: 77.

84Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (23 February 1872): 809; quoted in Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 33.

85For further reading, see Carl R. Osthaus, Freedmen, Philanthropy, and Fraud: A History of the Freedmen’s Savings Bank (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1976).

86Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1875): 2262.

87“The Freedman’s Bank Deposits,” 23 January 1875, Chicago Tribune: 8.

88Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: 120–121.

89These were: the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1870, 16 Stat. 140 (1870), sometimes referred to as the Civil Rights Act of 1870; the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, 16 Stat. 433 (1871), sometimes referred to as the Civil Rights Act of 1871; and the Third Force Act of 1871, 17 Stat. 13 (1871).

90Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi was in Congress for the final vote for the First Ku Klux Klan Act, but did not vote. See Senate Journal, 41st Cong., 2nd sess. (25 May 1870): 704. He later voted in favor of the Second Ku Klux Klan Act. See Senate Journal, 41st Cong., 3rd sess. (24 February 1871): 367. Robert De Large of South Carolina was in Congress for the vote on the Third Ku Klux Klan Act, but did not vote. See House Journal, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (19 April 1871): 197–198.

91Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1871): 392.

92There was no roll call vote on the final passage of the Amnesty Bill in the House. See House Journal, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13 May 1872): 850.

93Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13 May 1872): 3382.

94House Journal, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13 May 1872): 850; Congressional Globe, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13 May 1872): 3381–3382.

95Congressional Globe, Appendix, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (30 May 1872): A530–531.