Pre-Congressional Experience

Though they served in Congress during the onset of Jim Crow laws, the five Black Americans elected in the late 19th century benefited from educational, economic, and social opportunities provided by federal intervention in the Reconstruction-Era South. All five men were born in the South and hailed from the former Confederacy. Three were born slaves, but before their 14th birthdays all were freed after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.7 Like their predecessors, most of those elected in the early Jim Crow Era were of mixed race: Four of the five were mulatto; two were their masters’ sons. Three of these men hailed primarily from the Upper South, a region encompassing North Carolina and extending northwest through Virginia and Maryland. Compared to the more relaxed views on racial miscegenation prevalent in the Lower South—the region stretching southwest from South Carolina—the Upper South had adopted the early British North American system of slavery in which sharp social lines defined the “white” and “black” races. Denied special legal or social privileges of their counterparts in the Lower South, both mulatto and dark-skinned men from the Upper South saw greater opportunity for advancement only after the end of slavery in 1865.8

Murray Farming Invention/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_patent_5179611B.xml Image courtesy of U.S. Patent and Trademark Office George W. Murray of South Carolina patented several farming inventions before his election to Congress. Patent No. 517,961 was a cultivator and marker to “open furrows for the reception of seeds.”
These late-19th-century Members also received substantially more formal education than their predecessors. Though their primary and secondary schooling was sporadic, all five attended college—compared with two of the 17 black men who served before them.9 Their more extensive education allowed Jim Crow-Era black Representatives prestigious careers. Three men practiced law: John Langston, Thomas Miller, and George White. Miller received training at Howard University, but in most rural states, formal legal training was not a requirement for passing the bar, which often consisted of an oral exam administered by local judges and lawyers.10 Several law schools rejected Langston in the 1850s. Tutored by local professionals, he passed an oral exam in 1854 for admission to the Ohio bar. George White studied law with a local retired judge and former Confederate officer, William John Clarke, in the late 1870s and later served as a district solicitor in his home in New Bern, North Carolina.11

Black Representatives in the Jim Crow Era had substantial political résumés before arriving in Congress. John Langston’s was the most impressive: He became one of the first blacks in American history to hold elective office when the Brownhelm (Ohio) Township elected him clerk in 1855 and later served as a U.S. diplomat in Haiti and Santo Domingo. As political opportunities diminished after Union troops withdrew from the South in 1877, Black Americans depended on local connections to secure government jobs doled out by elected officials. George Murray, for example, obtained a patronage position as a customs inspector in Charleston Harbor from 1890 to 1893.12

Next Section


7All the black Jim Crow-Era Representatives were born in 1849 or later, except John Langston, who was born in 1829, and lived most of his life in privilege in Ohio. He achieved an education and a level of experience that was comparable, if not superior, to that of his late-19th-century colleagues.

8Several historians discuss the impact of skin color on the stratification of free and enslaved black communities in different regions of the South from the colonial to the postbellum periods. Winthrop D. Jordan discusses the colonial period in “American Chiaroscuro: The Status and Definition of Mulattoes in the British Colonies,” in Edward Countryman, ed., How Did American Slavery Begin? (Boston: Bedford/St. Martin’s, 1999). Both Eugene D. Genovese and Paul D. Escott discuss stratification within slave communities in the antebellum period: Genovese, Roll, Jordan, Roll: The World the Slaves Made (New York: Pantheon Books, 1974) and Escott, Slavery Remembered: A Record of Twentieth-Century Slave Narratives (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1979). For the racial tensions within the free black communities in the antebellum period, see Ira Berlin, Slaves Without Masters: The Free Negro in the Antebellum South (New York: The New Press, 1974). Joel Williamson provides a thorough history of racial miscegenation in the United States in New People: Miscegenation and Mulattoes in the United States (New York: The Free Press, 1980). Willard Gatewood examines the effects of skin color on the postbellum elite communities in Aristocrats of Color: The Black Elite, 1880–1920 (Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2000).

9Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi graduated from Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, in 1857, and Representative Richard Cain of South Carolina attended Ohio’s Wilberforce University in the early 1860s.

10“John Mercer Langston,” in Jessie Carney Smith, ed., Notable Black American Men (Farmington Hills, MI: Gale Research, Inc., 1999): 693–698. Former Representatives Josiah Walls of Florida and James O’Hara of North Carolina were admitted to the bar in a similar fashion, although O’Hara received some formal training at Howard University.

11Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001): 39, 135–144.

12During the 1890s, GOP corruption at the state and national levels challenged the notion of patronage. Black Members of Congress vehemently supported the Republican defense of these favors. Representative Robert Smalls of South Carolina was in the minority voting against passage of the Pendleton Act in the 47th Congress (1881–1883), which made hiring procedures for the civil service more competitive. See Congressional Record, House, 47th Cong., 2nd sess. (4 January 1883): 837. While in office, black Representatives regularly doled out patronage positions. For example, throughout his career, Henry Cheatham gave friends and constituents in North Carolina and Washington, DC, federal positions, bestowing more than 80 appointments in the postal, internal revenue, and judicial services.