The Long Struggle for Representation: Oral Histories of African Americans in Congress
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. During nearly eight years in Congress, he was a fierce advocate for public education, civil rights legislation, and equal protection under the law. Rainey’s election dramatically transformed the notion of democratic representation in the People’s House. Before the end of the nineteenth century, he was joined by 21 Black Members of Congress—all from Southern states. The harsh restrictions of the Jim Crow South, however, ended this experiment in American democracy. No African Americans were elected to Congress from 1900 to 1928, when the Great Migration enabled African Americans to elect their representatives in Northern industrial cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and New York. Nevertheless, only seven African-American Members were elected before the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which led to significant gains in Black representation in Congress.
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Rainey’s election, the Office of the House Historian conducted oral histories with former Members, staff, and family who experienced the extraordinary decades since the 1950s, when more than 80 percent of all African-American Members were elected to Congress. Black Members engaged in a comprehensive struggle to build seniority, directly shape legislation, attain better committee assignments, and secure leadership positions, while Black staff found new opportunities for employment and advancement on Capitol Hill. The interviews in this ongoing project provide firsthand accounts of these significant changes as well as the persistent barriers facing African Americans in Congress. The voices collected here form essential threads weaving a new narrative of representative democracy in the twenty-first century.