Black Americans in Congress: An Introduction

Harper's Weekly First Vote/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_intro_first_vote_harper_lc.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress An 1867 Harper’s Weekly cover commemorates the first vote cast by African-American men. The passage and ratification of the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15th) between 1865 and 1870 catapulted former slaves from chattel to voters and candidates for public office.
In 1870 the arrival on Capitol Hill of the first African-American Senator, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, and the first African-American Representative, Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, ranks among the great paradoxes in American history: Just a decade earlier, southern slave owners held those same seats in Congress. Moreover, the U.S. Capitol, where these newest Members of Congress came to work—the center of legislative government, conceived by its creators as the “Temple of Liberty”—had been constructed by enslaved laborers.1 This book chronicles the participation of African Americans in the federal legislature and their struggle to attain full civil rights in the nearly 150 years since Revels and Rainey took their seats.

The institution of Congress, and the careers of black Members who have served in both its chambers, have undergone extensive changes since 1870.2 But while researching and writing this book, we encountered several recurring themes that led us to ask the following questions: What were the legislative priorities of black Members? What were the experiences of African Americans as they integrated the institution? How did they react to the political culture of Capitol Hill, and how did they overcome institutional racism? How did they search for, and ultimately attain, the means to exercise power? Lastly, how did the experiences of these individuals compare to those of other newly enfranchised Americans?

Shared Experiences of Black Americans in Congress

Gus Hawkins/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_intro_hawkin_augustus_nara_306_PSA_62_7658.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration As the first African American elected to the House from west of the Mississippi River, Augustus (Gus) Hawkins of California earned the nickname “Silent Warrior” for his persistent work on behalf of minorities and the urban poor.
In striking aspects, the history of black Americans in Congress mirrors that of other groups that were new to the political system. Throughout African-American history in Congress, Members viewed themselves as “surrogate” representatives for the black community nationwide rather than just within the borders of their individual districts or states.3 African-American Members who won election during the 19th century, such as Robert Elliott of South Carolina and George White of North Carolina, first embodied these roles and served as models for 20th-century black Members, such as Oscar De Priest of Illinois, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, and Shirley Chisholm of New York.

Surrogate representation was not limited to black Members of Congress. For instance, nearly half a century after black legislators entered Congress, women Members, too, grappled with the added burdens of surrogate representation. In 1917 women throughout the country looked to the first woman to serve in Congress, Representative Jeannette Rankin of Montana, for legislative support. Indeed, Rankin received so many letters she was forced to hire additional assistants to handle the workload. Hispanic-American Members and, later, Asian-Pacific American Members also had somewhat similar experiences speaking on behalf of a constituency that transcended their districts.4

As they entered Congress, the experiences of 20th-century African-American pioneers were similar in other respects to those of women, other minority groups, and indeed Members of Congress from all races and backgrounds, particularly on the question of which legislative style each individual chose to pursue. Would they conform to institutional norms to integrate themselves and rise to positions of influence? Or would they directly challenge those norms and appeal to public opinion?5 Known and admired by black Americans nationally, Representative De Priest and those who followed him were often sought out by individuals across the country, many of whom expected unfailing receptiveness to the long-neglected needs of the black community. In late 1934, the Atlanta Daily World memorialized De Priest, who lost re-election in his Chicago-centered district to Arthur W. Mitchell, the first black Democrat to serve in Congress. De Priest, the editors wrote, lifted his “voice in defense of those forgotten people he represented” in Chicago and nationally. Lionizing De Priest as a “gallant statesman and fearless defender” of black Americans everywhere, the editors expressed frustration with Mitchell, who explicitly noted during a speech to an Atlanta church congregation that he did not intend to represent “black interests” per se. Mitchell, the editors noted, “dashed the hopes of every Negro who sat within hearing of his voice, most of whom looked to him as their personal representative in the federal government.”6

Adam Clayton Powell Presiding/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_intro_powell_presiding_education_committee_LC.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress Under the leadership of Chairman Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, the Committee on Education and Labor approved more than 50 measures authorizing a host of new policies, including educational and job-training programs, school libraries, and increases to the minimum wage. Fellow committee members referred to Powell’s leadership as the most productive period in the committee’s then recent history.
Collectively, African Americans in Congress overcame barriers by persevering through a century of segregation, disenfranchisement, discrimination, and outright prohibition from Capitol Hill.7 After winning the right to participate in the American experiment of self-government, African Americans were systematically and ruthlessly excluded from it: From 1901 to 1929, there were no black officeholders in the federal legislature.

While seeking to advance within Congress and adapt to its folkways, each generation of black Members confronted racial prejudice (both overt and subtle), exclusion, and marginalization. Moreover, because there were so few African-American legislators at any one time, they were unable to form a potent voting bloc in order to influence legislation. Black Members of Congress also contended with increased expectations from the public and heightened scrutiny by the media. They cultivated legislative strategies that were common on Capitol Hill but took on an added dimension in their mission to confront institutional racism and represent the interests of the larger black community. Some 20th-century Members, such as Representatives Chisholm and Powell, became symbols for African-American civil rights by circumventing prescribed congressional channels and appealing directly to the public and media. Others pursued an institutionalist strategy: Adhering to the prevailing traditions and workways of the House and Senate, they hoped to shape policies by attaining positions of influence on the inside.8 Representative William Levi Dawson of Illinois, Powell’s contemporary, and others like him, such as Augustus (Gus) Hawkins of California and William H. (Bill) Gray III of Pennsylvania, favored the methodical, legislative style, diligently immersing themselves in committee work and policy minutiae.9

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1See William C. Allen with a foreword by Richard Baker and Kenneth Kato, History of Slave Laborers in the Construction of the United States Capitol (Washington, DC: Architect of the Capitol, 2005), a report commissioned by the U.S. House of Representatives and the U.S. Senate Slave Labor Task Force. For a detailed analysis of Congress’s management and, often, avoidance of central questions related to the practice of slavery from 1789 to 1860, see Don E. Fehrenbacher, The Slaveholding Republic: An Account of the United States Government’s Relations to Slavery (New York: Oxford University Press, 2001).

2The closing date for this e-book edition, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2019, was January 3, 2019.

3Jane Mansbridge, “Should Blacks Represent Blacks and Women Represent Women? A Contingent ‘Yes,’ Journal of Politics 61 (1999): 628–657. See also Carol Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993): 3–19.

4Office of History and Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives, Women in Congress, 1917–2006 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2007): 26; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Hispanic Americans in Congress, 1822–2012 (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 2013); Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, Asian and Pacific Islander Americans in Congress, 1900–2017 (Washington, DC: Government Publishing Office, 2017).

5Charlayne Hunter, “Shirley Chisholm: Willing to Speak Out,” 22 May 1970, New York Times: 31. For additional perspective, see William L. Clay, Bill Clay: A Political Voice at the Grass Roots (St. Louis: Missouri Historical Society Press, 2004): 7.

6“The Battle Royal in the Old First Illinois,” 9 November 1934, Atlanta Daily World: 4; “Congressman Mitchell,” 11 November 1934, Atlanta Daily World: 4; and “Congressman Mitchell Speaks,” 13 March 1935, Atlanta Daily World: 6.

7See Office of History and Preservation, Women in Congress, 1917–2006: 1–5.

8For a discussion on legislative styles, see James L. Payne, “Show Horses and Work Horses in the United States House of Representatives,” Polity 12 (Spring 1980): 428–456; see also James Q. Wilson, “Two Negro Politicians: An Interpretation,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 5 (1960): 349–369.

9For descriptions of these legislative styles in both chambers of Congress, see Payne, “Show Horses and Work Horses in the United States House of Representatives,” and Donald R. Matthews, U.S. Senators and Their World (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1960), especially the chapter “Folkways of the U.S. Senate.”