On December 12, 1870, Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina was sworn-in as the first African-American Member elected to the United States House of Representatives. To commemorate the 150th anniversary of this landmark in congressional history, the Office of the Historian has conducted oral histories with African-American Members, staff, and family. The interviews in this ongoing project provide firsthand accounts of the African-American experience on Capitol Hill since the 1950s—a period of dramatic change when Black Members were able to build seniority, shape legislation, and secure leadership positions. Learn more about this project.
A native Washingtonian, Roger Addison witnessed many changes in the District of Columbia and at the Capitol during his more than three decades of service in the House of Representatives. From moving furniture, to working in the main office for the Clerk of the House, and overseeing financial disclosures, Addison’s career involved a variety of unique, behind-the-scenes responsibilities.
Yvonne Brathwaite Burke made headlines during her political career, most notably for being the first Member to give birth while serving in Congress. With a seat on the Appropriations Committee and as the first woman to chair the Congressional Black Caucus, Burke built her reputation as a political star during her three terms in the House.
A civil rights activist and labor leader, William Lacy Clay, Sr. built a strong following as a local politician in St. Louis before coming to Congress. During his more than three decades in the U.S. House, Clay, a founding member of the Congressional Black Caucus, was a leading spokesperson for African Americans in his district and across the country.
As the first African-American woman elected to Congress from North Carolina, Eva M. Clayton used her position on the Agriculture Committee to represent the small farmers of her rural district. Greatly influenced by the civil rights movement, Clayton’s political career reflected her interest in advocating for women and African Americans in her district and beyond.
Ronald V. Dellums came to Congress as an outspoken Vietnam War critic and civil rights activist. He made history as the first African-American Member to serve on and chair the Armed Services Committee and built a legacy as a tireless leader in the movement to end apartheid in South Africa.
Building on momentum from a grassroots campaign against an incumbent Representative, Donna Edwards made history on her second run for office, becoming the first African-American woman elected to Congress from Maryland. During her decade in the House, the Maryland Congresswoman sought to protect women from domestic violence and worked to promote health care reform.
With her historic appointment as the first African-American woman officer on the Capitol Police Force, Arva Marie Johnson observed many changes in the institution’s security during her 32-year career, and was an officer during the 1998 shooting at the Capitol and on September 11, 2001.
In 1959, James Johnson accepted an invitation to become a House Page. But when he arrived in DC, House officials retracted his appointment, telling him all the positions were filled. That episode focused national attention on the 15-year-old high school student. Five Representatives eventually agreed to hire him as a messenger for their offices, allowing him to become one of the first African Americans to attend the Capitol Page School.
In 1965 John R. Lewis and other peaceful protestors were brutally attacked by state troopers during a march across the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama. This event, which became known as “Bloody Sunday,” played a pivotal role in the passing of the Voting Rights Act of 1965. For over two decades, Representative Lewis led a congressional pilgrimage to Selma—and other cities across the state—to reflect on the civil rights movement.
The son of former Member Carrie P. Meek of Florida, Kendrick B. Meek became the first African American to succeed his mother in Congress. Carrie Meek, elected as one of the first Black Members to represent Florida since Reconstruction, served on the influential Appropriations Committee during her decade-long career in the U.S. House and became a political mentor to her son.
As the first African-American House Page of the 20th century, Frank Mitchell made history by breaking racial barriers while also witnessing significant moments in the civil rights movement, including the floor debates for the Voting Rights Act of 1965.
During the 1970s, Muriel Morisey was a constituent case worker, press secretary, and senior legislative assistant for New York Representative Shirley Chisholm and District of Columbia Delegate Walter Fauntroy. Her skills as a speechwriter, education policy expert, and advocate for constituents on Capitol Hill served as valuable preparation for the next phase of her career as a civil rights lawyer and academic.
Carlottia Scott worked in the House for more than 20 years. Before becoming the chief of staff for California Representatives Ronald V. Dellums and Barbara Lee, she worked for the Committee on the District of Columbia, the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, and Congresswoman Cardiss Collins of Illinois. Throughout her career, she advocated for diverse perspectives in the legislative process.