Historical Legacy

Reduction’s failure was but one symptom of the greater structural flaw of America’s political system afflicting southern blacks. In 1901, anticipating his imminent displacement, George White—the last African American remaining in Congress—retired, a victim of North Carolina’s disenfranchisement schemes. On the eve of his departure from the House, White laid bare his frustration at the more than 30 years of broken promises made to African Americans. “The mule died long ago of old age, and the land grabbers have obtained the 40 acres,” he said.88 In his farewell speech, White observed, “This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up someday and come again.”89 It would be 28 years before another African American won election to Congress.

The legacy of African Americans in Congress during the 19th century has often been regarded as a footnote to discussions of their famous contemporaries, such as Frederick Douglass, Booker T. Washington, and Senator Charles Sumner. During the early 20th century, contemporary scholars disparaged the role African Americans had in Reconstruction, citing lack of legislative successes by black Congressmen and ignoring the institutional racism that impeded them from the start.90 Columbia University professor William Dunning introduced this unfair and discriminatory interpretation: “The negro had no pride of race and no aspiration or ideals save to be like whites,” he wrote in 1907. One of his contemporaries, Ohio businessman and historian James Ford Rhodes, asserted that black Congressmen “left no mark on the legislation of their time; none of them, in comparison with their white associates, attained the least distinction.”91

African-American leaders, including former Representative John Lynch of Mississippi, refuted the Dunning interpretation. In 1917 Lynch noted in The Journal of Negro History that black officeholders “not only gave satisfaction to the people whom they served, but they reflected credit upon themselves, their race, their party and the community that was so fortunate as to have the benefit of their services.” W. E. B. Du Bois, a leading African-American intellectual and activist, also praised the black Congressmen in his classic work, Black Reconstruction in America. Writing in 1935, Du Bois reviewed some of their most famous speeches. “The words of these black men were,” Du Bois concluded, “perhaps, the last clear, earnest expression of democratic theory of American government in Congress.”92

A generation later, the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s forced scholars to re-evaluate the significance of the black Reconstruction-Era Congressmen. The unprecedented number of African Americans participating in politics during the 1960s and 1970s also inspired renewed interest in the lives and careers of their 19th-century forebears—many of whom were the subjects of extended biographies.93

The fuller historical picture that emerged during the mid-20th century fundamentally altered the earlier, derisive interpretations of Reconstruction-Era black Congressmen. Modern scholars observe that early black officeholders were prevented from fulfilling their potential by an unending number of hurdles. The historian Eric Foner described their political careers as fraught with obstacles, noting that more black officeholders “did not always translate into augmented power.” Despite the constant hurdles these African-American lawmakers faced, the historian Carol Swain added that their presence in Congress “undoubtedly helped—however modestly—to break down their white colleagues’ notions of black inferiority.”94 Nevertheless, another scholar concluded, “Something magnificent happened between 1870 and 1901,” noting that “the significance of the African-American congressmen . . . goes beyond the number of bills they pushed through Congress.” Their courage and perseverance in their attempts to create a more democratic government formed the core of their collective symbolism.95

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88Congressional Record, House, 55th Cong., 3rd sess. (26 January 1899): 1124.

89Congressional Record, House, 56th Cong., 2nd sess. (29 January 1901): 1638.

90Howard N. Rabinowitz provides a detailed essay chronicling the history of Reconstruction-Era scholarship; see “Introduction: The Changing Image of Black Reconstructionists,” in Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era, ed. Howard Rabinowitz (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1982): xi–xxiv.

91William Archibald Dunning, Reconstruction Political and Economic (New York: Harper & Brothers Publishers, 1907): 213; James Ford Rhodes, History of the United States From the Compromise of 1850, vol. 7 (New York: MacMillian Company, 1906): 169.

92John R. Lynch, “Some Historical Errors of James Ford Rhodes,” The Journal of Negro History 2 (October 1917): 357; W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction in America (1935; repr., New York: Free Press, 1998): 629.

93Most biographies appeared in the 1970s. See, for example, Okun Edet Uya, From Slavery to Political Service: Robert Smalls, 1839–1915 (New York: Oxford University Press, 1971); Peggy Lamson, The Glorious Failure: Black Congressman Robert Brown Elliott and the Reconstruction in South Carolina (New York: Norton, 1973); Peter D. Klingman, Josiah Walls: Florida’s Black Congressman of Reconstruction (Gainesville: University of Florida Press, 1976); and Loren Schweninger, James T. Rapier and Reconstruction (Chicago, IL: The University of Chicago Press, 1978). Recent scholars, too, have shown a renewed interest in the lives of 19th-century black Representatives. See, for example, Justesen, George Henry White (2001) and Marszalek, A Black Congressman in the Age of Jim Crow (2006).

94Eric Foner, Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1993): 538; Carol Swain, Black Faces, Black Interests: The Representation of African Americans in Congress (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993): 29.

95Stephen Middleton, ed., Black Congressmen During Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook (Westport, CT: Praeger, 2002): xx.