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 had earlier benefited from the federal government’s intervention in southern society during the Reconstruction Era: The large federal presence in the former slave states included investments in the region’s educational and economic opportunities. All five men were born in the South and hailed from the former Confederacy. Three had been born into slavery, freed by the time they were teenagers at the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865.6

Murray Farming Invention/tiles/non-collection/b/baic_cont_2_patent_5179611B.xml Image courtesy of the 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.”
Like their predecessors, most of those elected in the early Jim Crow Era (four of the five) were of mixed race parents; two of whom were their masters’ sons.7 Unlike their predecessors, however, these late-19th-century Members received substantially more formal education than the first generation of Members immediately after the Civil War. Though their primary and secondary schooling was sporadic, all five attended college—compared with two of the 17 black men who served before them.8 Three 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.9 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 retired judge and former Confederate officer, William John Clarke, in the late 1870s and later served as a district solicitor in his hometown of New Bern, North Carolina.10

Black Representatives in the Jim Crow Era also had substantial political résumés before arriving in Congress. John Langston’s was perhaps the most impressive: He became one of the first African Americans in history to hold elective office when the Brownhelm Township in Ohio elected him clerk in 1855, and he 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, African 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 1893.11

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6All 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 Ohio. He achieved an education and a level of experience that was comparable, if not superior, to that of his late-19th-century colleagues.

7Several historians discuss the impact of skin color on the stratification of free and enslaved black communities in different regions of the South from the antebellum to the postbellum periods. Both Eugene D. Genovese and Paul D. Escott discuss stratification within enslaved 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 a discussion of 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). 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). In more recent scholarship on sexual exploitation and the lives of mixed-race free and enslaved men and women, see Ibram X. Kendi, Stamped from the Beginning: The Definitive History of Racist Ideas in America (New York: Nation Books, 2016).

8Senator 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.

9“John Mercer Langston,” in Notable Black American Men, ed. Jessie Carney Smith (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.

10Benjamin R. Justesen, George Henry White: An Even Chance in the Race of Life (Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 2001): 39, 135–144.

11During the 1890s, GOP corruption at the state and national levels challenged the notion of patronage. Black Members of Congress 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.