Breaking Down Racial & Gender Barriers
The Reconstruction Era changed the face of Congress as African Americans—some of them former slaves—were elected to the U.S. House. Other freedmen were appointed or hired to serve as staff.60 Fourteen-year-old Alfred Q. Powell of Manchester, Virginia, is the earliest known Black American appointed as a House Page. His chief sponsor was Representative Charles Howell Porter of Virginia, who had moved to Virginia from New York after the Civil War and represented a Richmond-centered district. He secured Powell’s appointment on April 1, 1871, and Powell served during most of the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). It appears Powell wasn’t simply plucked out of obscurity for this ground-breaking appointment. He hailed from a prominent family in Virginia’s free African-American community. Powell’s great uncle was one of the most influential Black American politicians of the nineteenth century, John Mercer Langston, who represented Virginia in the U.S. House in the 51st Congress (1889–1891).61
Powell’s first day as a Page in the Republican-controlled House coincided with a contentious debate on the eve of the first Ku Klux Klan Act, as notable African-American Members such as South Carolinians Robert Elliott and Joseph Rainey delivered speeches on the floor attesting to violations against the 14th Amendment rights of their constituents.62 A New-York Tribune correspondent wrote, “Except [for] some practical jokes which have been put upon [Powell] by some of the older pages, he got started very creditably.”63 Records indicate that Powell served until late 1872, just months before the close of the 42nd Congress.64 An African-American Page (appointed by the Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts) had served as a Senate riding Page nearly a year and a half before Powell started in the House.65 It is unclear if there were any other black Pages who served in the years immediately after Powell left the chamber. The “Jim Crow” laws and customs that followed had, by the 1890s, made that improbable. By the turn of the twentieth century, Powell’s milestone was forgotten.
It was not until 1965, at the zenith of the civil rights movement and on the centennial of Abraham Lincoln’s death, that the House welcomed another African-American Page: Frank Mitchell of Springfield, Illinois. Congressman Paul Findley, who represented the district that encompassed Lincoln’s hometown, and Republican Leader Gerald R. Ford of Michigan pushed for the appointment, which symbolized a marriage of the past and present. Like Alfred Q. Powell nearly a century earlier, Mitchell paged during a civil rights revolution as he witnessed debate about the 1965 Voting Rights Act during his service in Washington. The March on Selma, Alabama, had occurred just weeks before his appointment. “I don’t think I broke any barriers for anybody,” recalled Mitchell, whose principal job during his several months of service was to answer phones in the Republican Cloakroom. “But what I did do was carry myself with dignity and respect, and I hope I made it easier for the next guy or woman coming along, so that there wouldn’t be any hesitation.”66
The first female Page was 13-year-old Gene Cox—appointed on January 3, 1939, by her father, Representative Edward Eugene Cox of Georgia, to serve symbolically on the opening day of the 76th Congress (1939–1941). Sworn in by Doorkeeper Joseph Sinnott, Cox logged just three hours on the job, collected autographs from Members, posed for the national press on the Speaker’s rostrum wielding a gavel, and earned $4 for her work.67
Sinnott fretted that the Cox story might “get into the papers” (it did) and produce an immediate avalanche of applications from girls (it did not).68 Over the next several decades, whenever the issue of girls serving as Pages was raised by the occasional advocate on or off Capitol Hill, the response from House leaders mirrored American society’s prevailing assumptions. Girls could do the work, but because Pages lived independently in an urban setting, the overriding consideration in denying gender equality in the Page ranks was that living conditions were unsafe for unsupervised teenage girls.
Such attitudes prevailed into the 1960s but began to change as more women Members of Congress advocated for introducing girls into the Page ranks and as pressure for equality grew with the women’s rights movement during that decade. In 1973, more than 30 years after Gene Cox served for a day, Speaker of the House Carl Albert of Oklahoma made the historic first appointment of a female Page—Felda Looper of Heavener, Oklahoma. Speaker Albert’s decision was based in part on Looper’s persistent letter-writing campaign to gain girls admittance to the Page program. “It was the first time in my life I ever felt discriminated against as a woman, and it made me furious,” Looper recalled about her reaction upon learning about the “unspoken rule” barring girls from serving as Pages.
Looper began her tenure on May 21, 1973, amid widespread media coverage.69 But as a bench Page, she quickly settled into a summer of performing the same tasks as her male counterparts—primarily running errands for Members of Congress. “This was a life-changing experience for me,” Looper recalled, noting that the mounting Watergate Crisis was a topic that occupied much of the summer. “This was the first time I ever saw kids fighting over a newspaper and really knowing what was going on in the world, or certainly in our little world.”70 Within several years girls were being appointed House Pages in numbers commensurate with their male counterparts. And, in the 97th Congress (1981–1983), because of her superior academic performance, Polly Padden was selected from among the Pages to become the first female to be the Speaker’s Page.71
60See Office of History and Preservation, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 (Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 2008); online at http://history.house.gov/Exhibitions-and-Publications/BAIC/Black-Americans-in-Congress/.
61See “A Manchester Boy in Congress,” 3 April 1871, Daily State Journal (Richmond, VA): 1; “XLIIID Congress—In Session: Continuation of the Ku Klux Klan Debate in the House,” 3 April 1871, New-York Tribune: 1; “Letter from Washington,” 3 April 1871, Baltimore Sun: 4; “Colored Page; Public Debt Statement,” 2 April 1871, Chicago Tribune: 2; “Dispatch to the Associated Press,” 2 April 1871, New York Times: 1. In addition to Porter, Representatives James H. Platt, Jr., and William H. H. Stowell, both also northern Reconstruction Republicans representing Virginia districts, were credited in some news articles with sponsoring Powell. Census records from 1860 indicate that Powell was born into a free black family in Manchester; his father, James, was a wheelwright and his mother, Mary, was a homemaker. Powell’s paternal grandmother, named Maria, was the sister of John Mercer Langston.
62See, Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1871): 376–397.
63“XLIIID Congress—In Session”: 1.
64“Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives,” Mis. Doc. No. 7, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (5 December 1871): 85; “Contingent Expenses of the House of Representatives,” Mis. Doc. No. 13, 42nd Cong., 3rd sess. (2 December 1872): 87–89.
65The very first African-American Page to serve in Congress was Andrew Slade, who was appointed by the Senate Sergeant at Arms, likely at the behest of Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. See “Senator Brownlow on the Rampage—Speech on the Spanish Gunboats—Colored Page in the Senate,” 16 December 1869, Baltimore Sun: 1. Slade also appears on the Senate payroll as a “riding page,” a Page who delivered documents on horseback to various executive departments in Washington, D.C. In 1913, the New York Times profiled an elderly African- American man named Eugene Patten, to whom the newspaper attributed the honor of having been the “first” to serve in Congress. The article offered no precise dates, but noted that Patten served in the House sometime in the 1870s, shortly after Democrats gained control of the chamber in the wake of the 1874 elections. Given the Members whom Patten recalled in the interview, he may have served in the period from 1875 to 1881; however, there is no record of Patten in any of the annual contingent expense reports of the House, in any paid position, during the period in question. See “Great Men as a Congress Page Has Seen Them: Only Negro Who Served in that Capacity Tells Stories of ‘Little Giant’ Stephens, ‘Sunset’ Cox and Others,” 21 September 1913, New York Times: SM2.
66Frank Mitchell Interview, 6 August 2008, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives: 32.
67“Girl, 13, House Page for a Day,” 4 January 1939, New York Times: 10; Gladstone Williams, “Gene Cox, 12, Has Big Time as Page ‘Boy,’” 4 January 1939, Atlanta Constitution: 9.
68Gonzalez, The Children Who Ran for Congress: 196.
69For more on Looper and her milestone, see Felda Looper Interview, 21 May 2007, Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives.
70Looper Interview: 10.
71Amer, “Pages of the United States Congress”: 48. See also, Barbara Gamarekian, “Capitol Pages: Witness to History,” 31 May 1982, New York Times: A8.