The Negroes’ Temporary Farewell: Jim Crow and the Exclusion of African Americans from Congress, 1887–1929
On December 5, 1887, for the first time in almost two decades, Congress convened without an African-American Member. “All the men who stood up in awkward squads to be sworn in on Monday had white faces,” noted a correspondent for the Philadelphia Record who witnessed 317 Members of the 50th Congress (1887–1889) take the oath of office on the House Floor. “The negro is not only out of Congress, he is practically out of politics.”1 Although three black Representatives served in the very next Congress, the total number of African Americans serving on Capitol Hill diminished significantly as the congressional focus on racial equality faded in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.
Only five African Americans were elected to the House during the next decade: Henry Cheatham and George Henry White of North Carolina, Thomas Miller and George Murray of South Carolina, and John Mercer Langston of Virginia. But despite their isolation, these men sought to represent the interests of all African Americans. Like their predecessors in the years after the Civil War, these five confronted violent elections, fought for their seat after having their victories contested, faced difficulty procuring desirable committee assignments, and were unable to pass their legislative initiatives. Moreover, these black Members faced further impediments in the form of legalized segregation and disenfranchisement, general disinterest in progressive racial legislation, and the increasing power of conservatives in Congress—a number of whom had served in the Confederate Army—who opposed federal efforts to protect civil rights in the South.
In the decade after the 1876 presidential election, the Republican-dominated state governments in the South, which had provided the basis for black political participation during Reconstruction, were undermined by former Confederates and their sympathizers who rebuilt the Democratic Party and seized control of southern state governments by brutally suppressing black voters and eliminating the power of the Republican Party below the Mason-Dixon line. The electoral crisis of 1876 also revealed fissures within the GOP, as many party stalwarts focused on commercial issues rather than on the civil rights agenda previously pursued by the Radical Republicans. This period marked the beginning of a “multi-generational deterioration” of the relationship between black and white Republicans.2 By the 1890s, most African Americans had either been barred from or abandoned electoral politics as extralegal violence and economic reprisals became a constant threat.
Advocacy for African Americans in Congress became substantially more difficult as the number of black Members dwindled.3 After Representative George Henry White’s departure from the House in March 1901, no African American served in the U.S. Congress for nearly three decades. The length and persistence of this exile from national politics starkly conveyed the suffocating effect of the reign of “Jim Crow,” the brutal system of racial segregation imposed upon southern blacks by law and by custom.
Beginning in the last quarter of the 19th century, African Americans—the vast majority of whom still lived in the South—experienced unique suffering and deprivation under the system of racial segregation known as Jim Crow. Enforced by legal and extralegal means, the laws and practices that constituted the Jim Crow system evolved over several decades and ultimately restricted civil and political rights, economic opportunities, and social mobility for African Americans until the 1960s.4 The term derived from a popular character in southern minstrel shows—in which white performers in blackface portrayed African Americans. How the term Jim Crow came to be associated with segregation is not clear, but it was eventually used to describe both the formal and the informal manifestations of segregation in the South. Beginning with Tennessee in 1870, every southern state adopted laws against interracial marriage. By the 1880s, most public places and many private businesses had “Whites Only” and “Colored” facilities. These included schools, seating areas, drinking fountains, work spaces, government buildings, train stations, hospitals, restaurants, hotels, theaters, barbershops, laundries, and even public restrooms.
Virtually all the political advances afforded freedmen during Reconstruction were rolled back and eradicated during the years after 1890. In the South, the races were separated even more systematically and rigidly than during slavery. Many blacks were reduced to a second-class citizenship that the white ruling class repeatedly exploited for political and economic purposes. As C. Vann Woodward wrote in 1955, in one of the first scholarly reinterpretations of this period, Jim Crow laws “did not assign the subordinate group a fixed status in society. They were constantly pushing the Negro farther down.”5
1“The Negro in Politics,” 12 December 1887, Washington Post: 5.
2Michael K. Fauntroy, Republicans and the Black Vote (Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner Publishers, 2007): 41.
3C. Vann Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow (1955; repr., New York: Oxford University Press, 2002): 82.
4A rich historical literature details this process. Aside from The Strange Career of Jim Crow, see Woodward’s seminal work, The Origins of the New South, 1877–1913 (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University, 1951) and Edward Ayers, The Promise of the New South: Life After Reconstruction (New York: Oxford University Press, 1992). For African-American political activism in the South from slavery into the Jim Crow and Great Migration eras, see Steven Hahn’s A Nation Under Our Feet: Black Political Struggles from Slavery to the Great Migration (Cambridge, MA: Belknap Press, 2003).
5Woodward, The Strange Career of Jim Crow: 108.