The Reconstruction Generation, 1870–1887

The group of 17 African-American Representatives who served from 1870 to 1887 symbolized the triumph of the Union during the Civil War and the determination of Radical Republicans to enact reforms that temporarily reshaped the political landscape in the South during Reconstruction. These pioneers were all Republicans elected from southern states. Though their educational, professional, and social backgrounds were diverse, they were all indelibly shaped by the institution of slavery. Eight Members had been enslaved and suffered greatly under slavery. Other black Members had been free before the war and were comparatively well-to-do but belonged to strictly circumscribed mixed-race or free black communities in the South. Mixed-race heritage was a precarious political inheritance: Previously free mixed-race Members of Congress were shunned by southern whites and were never fully trusted by freedmen, who often doubted they had at heart the interests of former slaves.

John Willis Menard/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_intro_menard_addressing_house_LC-USZ62-62519.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress On February 27, 1869, John Willis Menard of Louisiana became the first African American to address the U.S. House while it was in session, defending his seat in a contested election. In November 1868, Menard appeared to have won a special election to succeed the late Representative James Mann—a victory that would have made him the first African American to serve in Congress. But his opponent, Caleb Hunt, challenged Menard’s right to be seated. The House deemed neither candidate qualified, leaving the seat vacant for the remainder of the final days of the 40th Congress (1867–1869).
Though these black Members adopted various legislative strategies, each sought to improve the lives of their African-American constituents. Their agendas invariably included three primary goals: providing education, enforcing political rights, and extending opportunities to enable economic independence. “Place all citizens upon one broad platform,” declared Richard Cain of South Carolina on the House Floor. “All we ask of this country is to put no barriers between us, to lay no stumbling blocks in our way, to give us freedom to accomplish our destiny.”10

Despite their distinguished service and their advancements on behalf of African-American political aspirations, these black Members produced few substantive legislative results. They never accounted for more than 2 percent of the total congressional membership. Their exclusion from the internal power structure of the institution cut them off from influential committee assignments and at times prevented them even from speaking on the House Floor, leaving them little room to maneuver. Congress enacted most of the key civil rights bills and constitutional amendments of the era before a single African American served on Capitol Hill. The Ku Klux Klan Acts and the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which embodied black legislative interests, depended solely on the impermanent support of the shifting but uniformly white House leadership. Black Members of Congress often were relegated to the sidelines and to offering testimonials about the malfeasance of reactionary white Southerners against freedmen.

After Reconstruction formally ended in 1877, ex-Confederates and their Democratic allies wrested power from Republican-controlled state governments. Over the next several decades, Democrats across the South, through custom and law, built a segregated society and discriminatory legal system, effectively eliminating black Americans from public office and ending their political participation. As the next group of African-American Members discovered, the federal government reacted impassively to the widespread disenfranchisement of black voters.

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Footnotes

10Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1875): 957.