Crafting an Institutional Identity

Across the decades, African-American Members encountered institutional racism and segregation on Capitol Hill. Although that discrimination gradually declined in intensity, it was a common and uniting experience.

In the years leading up to the Depression and World War II, Washington had the feel of a slow, sleepy, southern town in contrast to the bustle and cultural multiplicities of northern cities like New York, Boston, and Chicago. The nation’s capital was also deeply segregated. Southbound travelers embarking on journeys at DC’s Union Station terminal boarded segregated train cars. Formal and informal racial codes existed in the city’s restaurants, department stores, movie theaters, and boarding houses well into the 1950s. Washington’s legion of federal civil servants were separated according to race; until the eve of World War II, applicants for federal jobs had to submit a personal photograph, providing a de facto method of racial discrimination. Even after the Eisenhower administration officially desegregated the capital city, blacks and whites remained separate, living in distinct neighborhoods, attending separate churches, and enrolling in separate schools.133

Jessie De Priest/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_depriest_jesse_smithsonian.xml Image courtesy of Scurlock Studio Records, Archives Center, National Museum of American History, Smithsonian Institution In 1929 Jessie De Priest, the wife of Representative Oscar De Priest of Illinois, received an invitation to a tea hosted by First Lady Lou Hoover. The invitation angered southern Members of Congress and their wives, and the Mississippi state legislature passed a resolution imploring the Herbert Hoover administration to give “careful and thoughtful consideration to the necessity of the preservation of the racial integrity of the white race.” Mrs. De Priest later attended a specially scheduled tea with Lou Hoover. The episode underscored pervasive racism in the United States.
Congress itself practiced latent and blatant institutional racism: ranging from the denial of prominent committee assignments and any real voice in leadership to segregated barbershops and dining facilities and the open disparagement of black Members by their colleagues. In 1929, for instance, southern Members objected to being sworn in on the House Floor with Representative De Priest and refused to occupy an office next to his or serve on a committee with him.134 Capitol Hill associations and social clubs with congressional ties reluctantly welcomed black Members and their families. The Congressional Club—an organization chartered in the early 1900s initially for the spouses and daughters of Representatives and Senators, Supreme Court Justices, and Cabinet members—considered a bylaw that would deny membership to De Priest’s wife, Jessie, but rejected it due to the scrutiny of the national press.135

Despite the segregation prevalent on Capitol Hill during this era, a growing number of African Americans worked there. In 1949 Alice Dunnigan of the Associated Negro Press—one of the first black journalists credentialed to work in both the Senate and the House press galleries—wrote a four-part series titled “A Visit to the Nation’s Capitol” that appeared in the Tuskegee Institute’s Service magazine. Dunnigan interviewed dozens of African Americans, some of whom had been employed on Capitol Hill for three decades or more in a variety of capacities: barber, messenger, library assistant, doorkeeper, guard, head waiter, chef, filing clerk, driver, carpenter, secretary, guard, and committee clerk. According to Dunnigan, in 1949 one-third of the 1,500 employees in the Office of the Architect of the Capitol were African Americans. Among the individuals Dunnigan interviewed was Jesse Nichols, a document clerk and librarian who was one of the first African Americans to hold a clerical position in the Senate.136 Dunnigan also chronicled the story of Christine Ray Davis, the first African-American chief clerk of a congressional committee—a position she assumed in 1949 when William Dawson became chairman of the House Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Department. As chief clerk, Davis was the highest-paid black woman in the federal government and, Dunnigan noted, the first African-American congressional aide with unrestricted access to the House Floor.137

Speaking Out Against Segregation

Black Members of Congress tended to resist discrimination on the Hill in one of two ways: They met segregation head on to publicize the folly of institutional racism, or they minimized its significance by gaining positions of influence, thereby ameliorating segregation from within the institution. Individual personalities often governed that choice, though just as often, purposeful legislative calculations factored into how African-American Members responded to racism in the House and the Senate. There was little middle ground. Those who confronted racism openly suffered the wrath of white supremacists, and those perceived as less than zealous in the pursuit of civil rights were scorned by black activists.

Adam Clayton Powell Cartoon/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_powell_cartoon_lcusz62_109829.xml Image courtesy of the Library of Congress In 1967, cartoonist Gib Crockett depicted the growing controversy in Congress over Adam Clayton Powell, Jr. In January 1967, the House of Representatives removed Powell from his position as Chairman of the Committee on Education and Labor and refused to seat the New York Representative in the 90th Congress (1967–1969). The House approved a measure to deny Powell his seat for five weeks while a nine-member bipartisan special committee examined ethics charges against him. After the special committee recommended several punishments for Powell, including censure, the House voted 307 to 116 to exclude him from the 90th Congress.
In the late 1920s and early 1930s, Oscar De Priest chose to combat segregation in Congress directly by addressing the issue on the House Floor and by using the power of the press. His arrival on Capitol Hill was met with outright contempt. One well-publicized episode involved an invitation to his wife, Jessie, to a traditional White House tea hosted by First Lady Lou Henry Hoover. Southern legislators howled in indignation, and the Mississippi legislature passed a resolution calling on President Herbert Hoover to give “careful and thoughtful consideration to the necessity of racial preservation of the racial integrity of the white race” because “such an exhibition of social equality at the White House tends to destroy such racial integrity.”138 The First Lady divided the party into sessions, carefully selecting invitees to Jessie De Priest’s group and providing the wives of southern Members an alternative time to attend. Undeterred, Jessie De Priest attended the event, while her husband dismissed critics as “cowards.”

De Priest became an advocate for desegregation because of the environment he encountered not because of his political background. During a tough re-election bid in 1934, his anti-segregation rhetoric increased as Election Day approached. He had initially hoped to win over his House colleagues by his example as a Member, he later declared, “but if securing their respect means sacrificing my race, that respect I do not seek any longer.” De Priest continued, “I am sorry I have to devote my time trying to watch the needs of the American Negro. I wish I could devote my time, like you gentlemen devote your time, trying to watch the interests of all the American people instead of just 12,000,000 of them.”139 In 1934 the Illinois Representative waged a public campaign to stop segregation in the House Restaurant. “If we allow segregation and the denial of constitutional rights under the Dome of the Capitol, where in God’s name will we get them?” De Priest demanded. Though De Priest shamed the House into creating a special investigatory committee, the majority of its members were Democrats who acceded to the wishes of southern segregationists by refusing to recommend reforms.140 De Priest also protested efforts to segregate other House facilities, such as the barbershop, and pressured Speaker Henry T. Rainey of Illinois to permit a black minister to offer an opening session prayer in the House.141

Despite his raw personal courage, De Priest failed to achieve any lasting reform—a setback that made him look ineffective in the eyes of his Chicago-area constituents and left him vulnerable to political attack. His lack of legislative influence also diminished his national status as a hero among African Americans. Some even implied that he lacked familiarity with the larger black community and the resolve to pursue and achieve substantive legislative victories. Even after De Priest had begun advocating federal pensions for former slaves, the African-American Atlanta Daily World complained he was “conspicuous by his silence on important questions. As a legislator, as a statesman, as a student of those things affecting the Negro’s welfare, he has been a grand and glorious flop.”142 While De Priest’s substantive legislative achievements were modest, it should be noted that the unsympathetic and rigidly segregationist institution in which he worked, and his service as a Member in the minority party for most of his career, severely diminished his ability to enact reform.

The role of agitator and public advocate for civil rights suited Adam Clayton Powell. Charismatic, flashy, and photogenic, Powell developed a national following over his nearly three-decade career based as much on his style as on his legislative substance. In an era in which the press proved exceedingly forgiving of politicians’ personal eccentricities, Powell stood out: he drove a blue Jaguar, dressed impeccably, smoked cigars, and enjoyed the company of beautiful women. He was as much at home on the French Riviera as he was in Harlem. “For years his life was so flamboyant that it verged on caricature, yet he got away with it, not only politically but somehow esthetically,” noted one observer. While others advocated Black Power, some of Powell’s contemporaries felt that he “stood for Black Pleasure.”143

Substantively, Powell served as a prototype of the new, activist African-American politician. His loyal Harlem constituency provided a solid base of support that allowed him to pursue issues affecting the black community nationwide. Following his election to the House in 1944, some looked forward to his arrival on Capitol Hill, while others dreaded it—but no one doubted it would be eventful. Speaker Sam Rayburn, who often counseled new Members on the folkways of the institution, called Powell into his office and lectured him from behind his desk. “Adam, everybody down here expects you to come with a bomb in both hands. Now don’t do that, Adam. . . . Just see how things operate here. Take your time. Freshmen members of Congress are not supposed to be heard and not even to be seen too much. There are a lot of good men around here. Listen to what they have to say, drink it all in, get reelected a few more times, and then start moving. But for God’s sake, Adam, don’t throw those bombs.” Powell replied, “Mr. Speaker, I’ve got a bomb in each hand, and I’m going to throw them right away.” Rayburn burst into jovial laughter, and according to Powell, the exchange marked the beginning of a long friendship.144

On multiple fronts, Powell waged a direct, combative campaign against segregation on Capitol Hill. He helped to desegregate the House Press Gallery and to make available more opportunities for black reporters. He repeatedly challenged House Restaurant policy by bringing black staffers and guests to the segregated dining room. He also publicly confronted some of the most ardent segregationists in the House. His longstanding feud with Representative John E. Rankin often spilled out onto the House Floor. At one point Powell said he planned “to baptize Rankin or drown him.” Rankin, who called Powell’s election to the House a “disgrace,” refused to sit near him on the floor, but Powell followed Rankin and sat as close to him as possible (forcing him to move five times one day).145 Powell used his personal charisma calculatingly, providing the black community with an unflinching, activist political hero. “I’ve always got my mouth open, sometimes my foot is in it, but it is always open,” Powell said. “It serves a purpose; it digs at the white man’s conscience.”146 If Powell’s flamboyance and public refusal to brook racist policies won him many supporters outside Congress, few white Members in Congress—who were worried about their standing among their own largely white constituencies—worked with him.

Other black Members of Congress decided to remain loyal to the parties and political machines that propelled them into office. Representative Arthur Mitchell of Chicago, the first black Democrat elected to Congress, for instance, chose to work within the party and power structure of the House. During his four terms in Congress, Mitchell worked alongside many white colleagues, adopting the philosophy of patient cooperation and accommodation that his mentor, Booker T. Washington, had advocated.147

Mitchell watched the futile battle of his predecessor, De Priest, against segregation in the Capitol and calculated another course. In a pointed remark aimed at De Priest, Mitchell informed constituents shortly after his first election, “I think the people are tired of bombast, ballyhoo, and noise, where we should have constructive thought, honest action and real statesmanship.”148 But Mitchell’s reluctance to push issues important to the African-American community soon disappointed black civil rights activists. Particularly galling to the black press and the NAACP were his apparent lack of interest in an assignment on the District of Columbia Committee—with oversight of the capital city and its large black population—and his refusal to address the poor treatment of black journalists covering Capitol Hill.149 Yet, over time and after taking stock of the depth of segregationist sentiment in the House, Mitchell became more committed to civil rights reform, particularly legislation to curb discrimination in the federal civil service.

William L. Dawson/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_3_dawson_william_nara_306-PSA-61-10390.xml Image courtesy of the National Archives and Records Administration Representative William L. Dawson of Illinois chaired the Committee on Expenditures in the Executive Departments, later Government Operations, beginning in the 81st Congress (1949–1951). Dawson was the first African American to chair a standing committee in the House.
Other African-American Representatives drew similar criticism. The NAACP excoriated William Dawson, Mitchell’s successor, arguing that he did not adequately support reforms. Dawson’s loyalty to the Daley political machine in Chicago created constant tension with his black House colleagues because he rarely took a public stance regarding race relations. But Dawson’s association with Daley accorded him tangible power in the House. For these reasons, his career often is juxtaposed with that of Powell’s in analyses of the legislative styles and strategies of black Members of Congress.150 Unlike Dawson, Powell rejected machine politics, promising to “never be a machine man.”151 As a committee chairman, the Harlem Representative typically backed Democratic legislation and Democratic leaders, but his primary allegiance resided with his constituents and the advancement of African-American rights, not with the party.152

Powell’s style was the exception rather than the rule. Ideological approaches and legislative strategies disposed most black Members of Congress from this era to a less confrontational style. Robert Nix rebuffed activist critics who demanded he become more vocal on race issues, suggesting that his role as an insider who rose to chair a full committee produced more tangible results for his constituents. “I’ve seen people come into this Congress feeling it was incumbent upon them to give everybody hell, talking about the wrongs and fancied wrongs that happen every day,” Nix observed. “They didn’t correct a damn thing. . . . The legislation they sought to present to the House later on received little interest from any source.”153

Los Angeles Representative Gus Hawkins, who eventually chaired two full House committees, was highly successful at exerting insider influence but rarely sought the limelight. Reacting to criticism that he should do more to publicize the cause of racial equality, Hawkins said, “I’ve always felt, why yell if you can get the same result by being mild? . . . The loudmouths are well known, but they’re not very effective.”154 Hawkins never deviated from his conviction that the best way to help African Americans and other minorities was to focus on economic issues rather than on race.155

Senator Brooke, who favored an institutional approach to change, conformed easily to the Senate traditions that rewarded moderation and collegiality.156 By the late 1960s, many African-American politicians found themselves in an uncomfortable middle ground between an entrenched and unrepentant white power structure and younger, assertive black activists who promoted the Black Power movement, which appealed to racial pride and called for the creation of distinctive cultural and political organizations.157 Adopting the approach that blacks “must win allies, not conquer adversaries,” Brooke drew harsh criticism from more radical black politicians, who advocated more direct action to eliminate racial discrimination.158 Brooke blamed the press for focusing on confrontational activists, arguing that “the emphasis should be placed on the great, great majority of people in the Negro community who merely want improved conditions, who want government to respond responsibly to their needs and who at the same time recognize the need to help themselves.”159

Of this group of contemporaries, Charles Diggs emerged as a unique figure, able to blend Powell’s activism with the institutional effectiveness of other well-placed black Members. Like Powell, Representative Diggs often sought out the limelight to publicize civil rights issues, like when he visited Selma, Alabama, and interviewed black residents in the spring of 1965. But he possessed a measure of pragmatism Powell sometimes lacked. In addition to crafting a foreign policy agenda for future generations of black Members, Diggs was instrumental as chairman of the District of Columbia Committee in establishing home rule for the nation’s capital and in addressing the needs of its majority-black population. Diggs also displayed organizational prowess by creating in 1969 the Democratic Select Committee (DSC), a group of black Members who championed legislation important to African Americans nationally and a precursor to the Congressional Black Caucus.

To a considerable degree, the legislative styles of African-American Members shaped their approaches to racial issues on Capitol Hill. Some, like Powell, preferred a showier legislative style, using the press to publicize an issue or a legislative agenda to rally attention and build public support. Others, such as Dawson and Hawkins, exemplified a more low-key, insider style, focusing on committee work, policy minutiae, and parliamentary procedure to cultivate their legislative agendas.160 Unsurprisingly, black Members who took a low-key approach adopted an insider’s style, whereas the showier style offered a remedy for those outside Congress’s circle of power and influence, who lacked the ability to introduce legislative initiatives through normal channels.

Next Section


133For more about discrimination in the federal civil service, see Desmond King’s standard work Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government (New York: Oxford, 1995). For Eisenhower and his position on civil rights, see Pach and Richardson, The Presidency of Dwight D. Eisenhower: 137–157.

134Weiss, Farewell to the Party of Lincoln: 81, footnote 9.

135“Social Elite Aim Dart at Mrs. De Priest,” 26 January 1929, Chicago Defender: 1; “Congressional Club Fails to Bar Mrs. De Priest,” 16 February 1929, Chicago Defender: 4.

136For more on Jesse Nichols, see his interview with the Senate Historical Office, U.S. Senate, “Oral History Project: Jesse R. Nichols,” Oral History Project, (accessed 4 February 2008).

137Dunnigan’s articles appeared in four parts under the title “A Visit to the Nation’s Capitol” in Service, the magazine of the Tuskegee Institute; see November 1949: 9–12, 30–31; December 1949: 11–16; January 1950: 17, 20–21; and February 1950: 11–12, 21–22.

138“Pass De Priest Resolution,” 26 June 1929, New York Times: 9; “Mrs. De Priest Visit Stirs Mississippian,” 26 June 1929, Washington Post: 2.

139Congressional Record, House, 73rd Congress, 2nd sess. (21 March 1934): 5049.

140For a detailed account, see Elliott M. Rudwick, “Oscar De Priest and the Jim Crow Restaurant in the U.S. House of Representatives,” Journal of Negro Education 35 (Winter 1966): 77–82.

141“De Priest Adds Racial Demand: Opening Prayer in House by Colored Minister Requested,” 28 January 1934, Washington Post: 7.

142“Oscar De Priest,” 30 March 1932, Atlanta Daily World: 6. Interestingly, after De Priest’s effort to change Jim Crow practices in the House Restaurant in 1934, much of the African-American press rallied to his support. The Atlanta Daily World noted that De Priest “has shown himself to be no compromiser. He has measured head and shoulder to the stature of the statesman.” See “Let Us Help Oscar De Priest,” 4 April 1934, Atlanta Daily World: 6; E. N. Davis, “Race Losing Out Under NRA, AAA De Priest States Asking Negro Economic Progress,” 20 May 1934, Atlanta Daily World: 1.

143Joyce Haber, “A Question of Style: You Have It or You Don’t,” 22 January 1967, Los Angeles Times: C8; see also Richard L. Lyons, “Adam Clayton Powell, Apostle for Blacks,” 6 April 1972, Washington Post: B5.

144Powell, Adam by Adam: 72–73.


146Swain, “Changing Patterns of African-American Representation in Congress”: 123.

147“Plans Booker Washington Honor,” 8 September 1937, New York Times: 13; Congressional Record, House, 77th Cong., 2nd sess. (14 October 1942): 8189.

148“De Priest’s Record Is Object of Attack by New Congressman,” 19 November 1934, Atlanta Daily World: 2.

149Nordin, The New Deal’s Black Congressman: 89–90, 201–207.

150For instance, see James Q. Wilson, “Two Negro Politicians: An Interpretation,” Midwest Journal of Political Science 5 (1960): 349–369; Carol Swain, “Changing Patterns of African-American Representation in Congress”: 123–125.

151“Powell Declares ‘Negro First’ Aim,” 9 April 1944, New York Times: 25.

152Robert Singh, The Congressional Black Caucus: Racial Politics in the U.S. Congress (Thousand Oaks, CA: Sage Publications, 1998): 46–47.

153Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Men (Detroit, MI: Gale Research, 1998): 878.

154William J. Eaton, “Hawkins Retiring—But Not Quitting,” 23 December 1990, Los Angeles Times: 3A.

155Eaton, “Hawkins Retiring—But Not Quitting.”

156John Henry Cutler, Ed Brooke: Biography of a Senator (Indianapolis, IN: Bobbs-Merrill, 1972): 247.

157See, for example, Ray Rogers, “Negro Politicians Caught Between Warring Factions,” 7 December 1967, Washington Post: H3.

158John H. Henton, “A Dapper Mr. Brooke Goes to Washington,” 2 January 1967, New York Times: 22.

159Cutler, Ed Brooke: Biography of a Senator: 247.

160For more on the differences between the styles, see Donald R. Matthews, “The Folkways of the United States Senate: Conformity to Group Norms and Legislative Effectiveness,” American Political Science Review 53 (December 1959): 1064–1089. The same patterns have been observed in the House. See, for example, Charles L. Clapp, The Congressman: His Work as He Sees It (Garden City, NY: Doubleday, 1964): 22–23; and James L. Payne, “Show Horses and Work Horses in the United States House of Representatives,” Polity 12 (Spring 1980): 428–456.