Pre-Congressional Experience


All 17 of the African-American Congressmen elected between 1870 and 1887 came from the new Reconstruction governments in the former Confederacy. All but two—Representatives Robert Elliott of South Carolina and James O’Hara of North Carolina—were born in the South, and just under half (eight) were born into bondage. Four Reconstruction-Era black Members were likely the sons of their former slave owners, and 13 were of mixed-race heritage.12

The system of slavery affected every corner of southern society, so that the early lives of those who had not been enslaved were also profoundly shaped by it. Laws restricting the movements and opportunities of free and enslaved African Americans in the South uprooted families and lives. Before age 25, John Hyman of North Carolina was sold at least eight times. In 1859 Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, by then a free man, faced several legal obstacles while traveling to wed Susan Rainey in Philadelphia; only with the help of friends did Rainey avoid being charged as a criminal for visiting a free state without the authorization of white officials. When the newlyweds returned to Charleston, they had to circumvent laws preventing free blacks from returning to the South.

Result of the Fifteenth Amendment/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_fifteenth_amendment_may_19_1870_LC-USZ62-32761.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress “The Result of the Fifteenth Amendment,” a print from 1870, features a parade surrounded by vignettes of the new opportunities provided by the law and individuals instrumental in the amendment’s enactment.
Relative to communities of enslaved men and women, free black communities in the antebellum Lower South were small, urban, economically self-sufficient, and overwhelmingly of mixed race. These communities were often composed of men and women who had won or purchased their freedom, of those who had been freed by a slave owner (including those who were the mixed-race children of slave owners), and of free black immigrants who had settled there during the colonial period. The 1850 Census was the first to include statistics on the mixed-race population in the United States. Eighty-six percent of mixed-race Americans (350,000) lived south of Maryland. Though only 39 percent of this population lived in the Lower South, 75 percent of those who did were free; and the bulk of them lived in Charleston, South Carolina; New Orleans, Louisiana; and other port cities.13 Three of the black men who served in Congress in the postbellum years descended from the free, mixed-race elite communities in the Lower South.

The free communities of mixed-race men and women in the South existed in something of a racial middle ground. Wealthier, free mixed-race Southerners often tried to set themselves apart from the larger black population. Southern whites, however, made few distinctions when it came to skin color, creating a rigid boundary between the black and mixed-race population and the white population.14 For example, when mixed-race Mississippi Senator Blanche K. Bruce moved his home to Washington, DC, to escape the violence in Mississippi, his black constituents viewed that decision skeptically, and that skepticism only increased when Bruce took positions on civil rights from a distance, regarding the African-American cause as a practical political strategy rather than as a personal issue. His white constituents in Mississippi, however, simply refused to support his re-election because of the color of his skin.15


Plantation to Senate/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_plantation_senate_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress E. E. Murray’s 1883 print, “From the Plantation to the Senate,” illustrates notable black leaders including Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, and Josiah Walls of Florida.
The educational backgrounds of the 17 men who served in Congress during this period were diverse. Collectively, however, they far exceeded those of most African Americans at the time, almost all of whom were prohibited from receiving an education. From the colonial period on, slave states in the South banned teaching both free and enslaved black children to read and write, largely as a means of control. Southern cities afforded the best opportunities to circumvent anti-literacy laws. Ignoring harsh punishment, well-educated free blacks and liberal whites sometimes opened illegal schools to teach urban slaves. Others, like Frederick Douglass, who, as a young man was enslaved in Baltimore, Maryland, learned to read and write using a variety of creative tactics and utter determination.16

Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi attended one of two schools for black children in Fayetteville, North Carolina. “Together with the other colored youths [I] was fully and successfully instructed by our able and accomplished teacher in all branches of learning,” Revels recalled. Advancement beyond the secondary school level, however, was not an option in the antebellum South. “While I appreciated the educational advantages I enjoyed in the school and was proud of what I could show in mental culture,” Revels admitted, “I had an earnest desire for something more than a mere business education. . . . I desired to study for a profession and this prompted me to leave my native state.” Revels went on to attend seminary and received a college education in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois. Others also born in the South acquired educations in the North or in Canada.17

Those who were not educated as children—predominantly the formerly enslaved—acquired reading and mathematical skills or learned a new trade as adults during and after the Civil War. State and local governments sometimes financed public schools, or normal schools, but the Freedmen’s Bureau used federal money to fund educational institutions. By 1870, more than 4,000 schools in the South served nearly a quarter-million students.18 Having learned the photographer’s trade, future Mississippi Representative John Lynch attended a few months of night school in Natchez, Mississippi, after 1865. Lynch improved upon his brief formal education by reading northern newspapers and listening in on lessons at an all-white school adjacent to his photography shop.

Professional Background

In many respects, the professional backgrounds of the 19th-century black Representatives and Senators spanned a range of jobs and fields. Many 19th-century black Representatives were ambitious entrepreneurs and worked as barbers, tailors, hotel managers, steamboat porters, photographers, or store owners. Most were educators: Seven served as teachers and five worked as school administrators. Others were clergymen and farmers.

Many 19th-century political aspirants flocked to the newspaper industry, as these publications were the primary mouthpieces for political parties and a time-honored vehicle for advancing one’s political career.19 As millions of formerly enslaved men and women learned to read and write after the war, the number of black newspapers increased slowly in the 1870s. Yet these publications increased fivefold in the next decade.20 Black Congressmen used their newspapers to aid their campaigns. Richard Cain of South Carolina bought the South Carolina Leader (renamed the Missionary Record in 1868) to express the political and theological views of his African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Emanuel Church congregation, which was, one local observer noted, “one of the strongest political organizations in the state.”21Robert Smalls of South Carolina also started his own newspaper, the Beaufort Southern Standard, in 1872. Josiah Walls of Florida bought the Gainesville New Era newspaper after losing his re-election bid in 1874 to retain a public presence and to boost his odds of recapturing his seat. Alabama Representative James Rapier worked briefly as a reporter for a northern newspaper. In 1872, after white newspapers refused to print his speeches or acknowledge his candidacy for Congress, he started his own newspaper, the Republican Sentinel, in Montgomery, Alabama, and used it to promote his campaign.

Given their relative professional success, it is no surprise that 19th-century black Congressmen were affluent compared to the rest of the population. At least seven amassed estates of more than $5,000. The average net-worth of the first 16 black Members of Congress (those first elected before 1876) was $5,825. Forty-one percent of black officeholders at the state and local level, generally, were worth less than $1,000 each.22 Senator Blanche Bruce, the wealthiest individual, was worth more than $150,000 when he served in the U.S. Senate; he amassed his fortune primarily through real estate.23 Several South Carolinians participated in the speculative railroad fever that swept across the South during Reconstruction. Four black South Carolina Representatives—Joseph Rainey, Richard Cain, Alonzo Ransier, and Robert Smalls—partnered with seven others to form the Enterprise Railroad Company in 1870. The small, horse-drawn rail service shipped goods from the wharves on the Cooper River in Charleston to stations farther inland that connected to major cities. The business barely weathered the boom-and-bust economy of the early 1870s. The South Carolina Members and their business partners sold it to new owners in 1873.24

Political Backgrounds

All of the 19th-century black Congressmen were Republicans, a reflection and appreciation of the role that the Republican Party played in obtaining their political rights and—for many—their emancipation.25 Most remained lifelong Republicans and encouraged their black constituents to vote for white GOP candidates as well. “We are not ungrateful or unappreciative people,” Robert Smalls said on the House Floor. “We can never forget the Moses who led us out of the land of bondage.”26 In 1872 Liberal Republicans ran their own candidate, newspaper editor Horace Greeley, against incumbent President Ulysses S. Grant, testing the black Congressmen’s loyalty to the GOP. The Liberal platform embraced the enforcement of the Reconstruction Amendments that sought to guarantee civil rights in the South, called for amnesty for former Confederates, and put forward a laissez-faire economic policy. Prominent advocates for black civil rights, including Senator Charles Sumner, joined the Liberal camp. Although African-American Members agreed with most of the Liberal Republican platform, Greeley also had the backing of the Democratic Party, which broadly supported the system of slavery in the South. Jeremiah Haralson of Alabama told a meeting of prominent black New Orleans politicians, “I have been a slave all my life and am free on account of the Republican Party, and if it comes to an issue, I for one am ready to let Charles Sumner fall and let the Republican Party stand.”27 During the 1872 election, Grant handily defeated Greeley.28

Carpet bagger/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_1_carpet_bagger_harpers_Nov-9-1872_-LC-USZ62-77793.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Referencing the trend of Northerners moving to southern states to run for elective office, Harper’s Weekly illustrated the “carpet bagger” in a drawing by Radical-Republican-sympathizing cartoonist Thomas Nast, in its issue from November 9, 1872.
Factionalism was an even larger problem for the GOP in the South than it was on a national scale. Propped up by military rule under Reconstruction governments, southern Republicans recognized early on that their majorities depended on courting both black and white constituencies—especially as former Confederates regained the right to vote. Various Republican factions disagreed on how best to accomplish this, however. Geography played perhaps the foremost role in this debate between two groups called carpetbaggers and scalawags. Carpetbaggers were white Republicans from the North, primarily Union veterans, who moved to the South seeking new political and economic opportunities. Scalawags, on the other hand, were white GOP partisans native to the South, many of whom had been Unionists during the Civil War. Initially, scalawags were typically elected on more conservative platforms—they favored leniency toward former Confederates and focused on the economic rehabilitation of the war-torn South. Carpetbaggers tended to run more radical campaigns, advocating forceful civil rights legislation to protect black Southerners.29

The nominating convention system used to select candidates at the time only exacerbated GOP factionalism. In a practice born in the 1830s, voters elected delegates, who then attended local conventions to elect candidates for Congress and for other state and local offices. Delegates elected candidates by voice vote; if a single candidate did not receive a majority of votes, the convention chair would call for another round of voting (or balloting) and continue this practice until a majority was obtained. The convention system initially consolidated party power and allowed party leaders to control the flow of the conventions. In the Reconstruction South, however, where intra-party competition reigned, party conventions were often contentious, violent, and inconclusive. Candidates who lost the official party nomination often then ran as third-party Independent Republicans.30

Race was a second point of contention among GOP factions in the South. White Republicans who lost nominations to black candidates frequently ran as Independent Republicans in the general election, effectively splitting the GOP vote. White Republican leaders were careful to maintain hegemony, even in states with black majorities, such as South Carolina, which had the largest black population (60 percent) concentrated in the low country—coastal areas with antebellum rice and cotton plantations.31 A series of strong, white Republican governors came to power throughout the Reconstruction period, often bolstered by the large black electorate. Carpetbagger Robert Scott (1868–1872), scalawag Franklin Moses (1872–1874), and carpetbagger Daniel Chamberlain (1874–1877) all served as Republican governors.

The Scott and Moses administrations were ridiculed nationwide for their corruption. A former doctor and Civil War colonel from Ohio, Robert Scott arrived in South Carolina as an assistant commissioner in the Freedmen’s Bureau in 1866. He soon became a staunch defender of African-American rights in the South, volunteering his medical services and setting up camps and clinics for freed-people in need of help. Scott’s popularity among black voters catapulted him to the governor’s mansion just two years later. Yet Scott’s administration soon succumbed to accusations of kickbacks and bribes involving the state’s railroad funds as well as corrupt practices by the State Land Commission, created to purchase and resell parcels of land to freedmen. Scott left office in 1872 under a cloud of scrutiny, leaving the state heavily in debt. His successor, South Carolina native Franklin Moses, followed his predecessor’s practices, often steering public money into projects to pay down his personal debt. When creditors attempted to arrest him, Moses called in the state militia to defend himself. Thoroughly discredited by 1874, Moses did not stand for re-election.32 Alonzo Ransier, who had earned a reputation for honesty statewide, despite having served as lieutenant governor under Scott, was particularly critical of the Moses administration. He told an audience of constituents, “Let every man feel that society at large will hold him and the party accountable for every misdeed in the administration of government, and will credit him with every honest effort in the interest of the people and . . . of good government.”33

Despite the litany of accusations and misdeeds by these governors, black Representatives generally defended their GOP state governments against attacks by Democrats on the House Floor. Josiah Walls noted that, “daily, you hear it loudly proclaimed upon this floor by the enemies of this Government that ‘reconstruction’ in the South caused by the enfranchisement of the Negro ‘is a failure.’. . . But they suggest no remedy for evils that are said to exist, nor do they deny the fact that it is the [white supremacists who] banded together for the very purpose of overthrowing regularly established State governments by force and fraud.”34

The governing coalitions built by black and white Republicans in the South often proved beneficial for both groups, explained one modern scholar. “Republicans wanted southern black votes to secure their burgeoning political dominance, and . . . African Americans wanted protection from discrimination . . . and a greater share of freedom and equality.”35 Representative John Lynch of Mississippi noted on the House Floor that perhaps one day African Americans in the South would be able to form different political coalitions. “I want to see the day come when the colored people of this county can afford to occupy an independent position in politics. But that day, in my judgment, will never come so long as there remains a strong, powerful, intelligent, wealthy organization arrayed against them as a race and as a class.”36

As Republicans, black candidates had the overwhelming task of balancing their party’s factions. One historian noted that “since [African-American politicians] could neither leave the party, nor control it, black Republicans began to operate as a pressure group within it. . . . In this sense, they were practicing what later became known as ethnic politics. Operating as a group, they tried to barter votes for offices and benefits.”37 Black officeholders saw themselves as advocates for black Americans everywhere, not just their immediate constituents—a political strategy that was later described as “surrogate” representation.38 Richard Cain, who served in the 43rd and 45th Congresses (1873–1875, 1877–1879), regularly referred to the “five million people for whom I speak,” a reference to the total African-American population in the United States at the time.39


12During this era, the press obsessed over the complexion and, by extension, the parentage and racial heritage of Reconstruction-Era black Congressmen. Observers uniformly described Representative Joseph Rainey as having an “olive” or “bright” complexion upon nearly every mention when he was first elected in 1870. In contrast, Representative Robert Elliott was often described as a “full negro,” “purest African,” or the “darkest” or “blackest” yet elected. See, for example, “Black Enough,” 7 March 1871, Atlanta Constitution: 1; “Colored Congressmen,” 16 April 1874, National Republican (Washington, DC): 6; “Washington,” 2 April 1871, Chicago Tribune: 2; “How The Colored Members of Congress Look,” 16 May 1872, vol. 49, Zion’s Herald: 235; “South Carolina Congressmen,” 14 November 1870, New York Times: 2.

13Williamson, New People: 25; Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: 179.

14Several historians discuss the impact of skin color on the stratification of free and enslaved black communities in different regions of the South from the colonial to the postbellum periods. Both Eugene D. Genovese and Paul D. Escott discuss stratification within enslaved communities in the antebellum period: Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974) and Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979). For a discussion of the racial tensions within the free black communities in the antebellum period, see Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: The New Press, 1974). Willard Gatewood examines the effects of skin color on the postbellum elite communities in Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000). In more recent scholarship on sexual exploitation and the lives of mixed-race free and enslaved men and women, see Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016): 114. In particular, see Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: 57, 277, 161–164, 280–281; Gatewood, Aristocrats of Color: 160.

15William C. Harris, “Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi: Conservative Assimilationist,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, ed. Howard Rabinowitz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982): 27, 33.

16Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: 561–564; Richard C. Wade, Slavery in the Cities: The South 1820–1860 (London: Oxford University Press, 1964): 173–176; see, for example, the Virginia law cited in Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: 304–305. See also Frederick Douglass, Narrative of the Life of Frederick Douglass, An American Slave, Written By Himself, accessed 7 November 2018,

17“Autobiography of Hiram Revels,” Carter G. Woodson Collection, Library of Congress.

18John Hope Franklin and Alfred A. Moss, From Slavery to Freedom: A History of African Americans, 8th ed. (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2000): 257.

19In 1860 74 percent of American newspapers reported a partisan affiliation; this figure jumped to 83 percent in the South. See Richard H. Abbot, For Free Press and Equal Rights: Republican Newspapers in the Reconstruction South (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2004): 2.

20Newspaper ownership generally skyrocketed in the Reconstruction period—the number of people identifying themselves as “editors,” “newsmen,” or “reporters,” doubled between 1870 and 1880 and doubled again in the next decade. See Alan Bussel, Bohemians and Professionals: Essays on Nineteenth-Century American Journalism (Atlanta: Emory University Graduate Institute of the Liberal Arts, 1981): 7, 22.

21Quoted in Joel Williamson, After Slavery: The Negro in South Carolina During Reconstruction, 1861–1877 (Chapel Hill: The University of North Carolina Press, 1965): 206.

22Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: xxii (see Table 13). This is perhaps a low statistic given that 37 percent had unreported wealth. African-American Congressmen on average were less wealthy than their white counterparts, who were typically worth between $11,000 and $15,000. See Terry L. Seip, The South Returns to Congress (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1983): 28 (see Table 4). According to a standard method of calculating the 21st-century value of 19th-century fortunes (taking 1870 as the basis year), the average black Member from the Reconstruction Era would have amassed roughly $109,905 in 2017 dollars. Senator Bruce’s fortune would translate into more than $2.8 million in 2017 dollars. These figures are drawn from calculations using the historical Consumer Price Index data. Other methods for making such calculations, including extrapolations based on the Gross Domestic Product, produce sometimes drastically different valuations. For an explanation of the difficulty in accounting for inflation conversion factors and determining the relative value of dollars over long periods of time see Oregon State University’s “Inflation Conversion Factors for Dollars, 1774 to Estimated 2018,” accessed 27 August 2018,

23Lawrence Otis Graham, The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America’s First Black Dynasty (New York: HarperCollins, 2006): 5–7.

24Edward A. Miller Jr., Gullah Statesman: Robert Smalls from Slavery to Congress, 1839–1915 (Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1995): 58; Bernard E. Powers Jr., Black Charlestonians, 1822–1885 (Fayetteville: The University of Arkansas Press, 1994): 169–170; Thomas C. Holt, Black Over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina During Reconstruction (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977): 164–165; Foner, Reconstruction: 361.

25Some sources note that Jeremiah Haralson of Alabama ran for Congress as a Democrat in the 1868 election. See Loren Schweninger and Alston Fitts III, “Haralson, Jeremiah,” in American National Biography 10 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 37–38 (hereinafter referred to as ANB). Michael Dubin makes no mention of Haralson’s candidacy for the 1868 general election; it is possible Haralson failed to win the nomination. See Michael Dubin et al., U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 213.

26Congressional Record, Appendix, 49th Cong., 1st sess. (30 July 1886): A319.

27Quoted in Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 133.

28For more on the Liberal Republican movement, see Andrew L. Slap, The Doom of Reconstruction: The Liberal Republicans in the Civil War Era (New York: Fordham University Press, 2006).

29Michael Perman, The Road to Redemption: Southern Politics, 1869–1879 (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1984): 22–56.

30Though the post–Civil War years saw the first interest in popular primaries, the convention system remained in place in the South. For more on this topic, see John F. Reynolds, The Demise of the American Convention System, 1880–1901 (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2006); Charles Edward Merriam, Primary Elections (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1908): 1–17.

31Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: xii.

32William L. Barney, “Scott, Robert Kingston,” American National Biography 19 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 505–507; Christine Doyle, “Moses, Franklin J., Jr.,” American National Biography 15 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1999): 971–972.

33Quoted in Christopher, Black Americans in Congress: 103.

34Congressional Record, Appendix, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1875): A166–169.

35Michael K. Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote (Boulder, CO: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 2007): 34.

36Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (13 June 1874): 4955.

37Perman, The Road to Redemption: 38.

38For a discussion of surrogate representation using modern examples, see Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’ ” Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657; Michele L. Swers and Stella M. Rouse, “Descriptive Representation: Understanding the Impact of Identity on Substantive Representation of Group Interests,” in The Oxford Handbook of the American Congress, ed. Eric Schickler and Frances E. Lee (New York: Oxford University Press, 2011): 241–271.

39See, for example, Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1875): 957.