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Capitol Men A Book About the First Black Congressmen


"Let me give you a word of the philosophy of reforms. The whole history of the progress of human liberty shows that all concessions yet made to her august claims have been born of struggle… If there is no struggle there is no progress. Those who profess to favor freedom and yet deprecate agitation, are men who want crops without plowing up the ground. They want rain without thunder and lightning. They want the ocean without the awful roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one; or it may be a physical one; or it may be both moral and physical, but it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand. It never did and it never will…"

-Frederick Douglass

In September, when Obama made his victory speech in Chicago, I was deeply touched at the sight of so many older African Americans in tears of joy. Though I was happy for Obama’s victoy, it must’ve had a special meaning for many older African Americans that it wouldn’t have for me, especially for those who lived through the civil rights era and before. The election of Barack Obama wouldn’t have had happened without the hard work and courage of past civil rights activists to fight for racial equality and to challenge the racism of American society. At the final stretch of the election season, a book by Philip Dray was released in bookstores about the first black Congressmen in the United States. This book, Capitol Men, describes the seven Congressmen and the conditions they faced during the Reconstruction. These Congressmen, Hiram Revels of Mississippi; Benjamin Turner of Alabama; Jefferson Long of Georgia; Robert De Large, Robert Brown Elliott, and Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina; and Josiah Walls of Florida faced great odds in battling their white opponents and were a source of pride to the newly emancipated African American populace.

The time after the Civil War was full of possibility and peril for the African Americans freed due to the Union victory. By the war’s end, over 180,000 black Americans had served in the Union Army, with 24,000 serving in the Union navy. Over 34,000 of them had sacrificed their lives for the Union cause. All black units like the Fify-fourth Massachusetts Volunteers took part in major battles, like the assault on Fort Wagner on July 18, 1863. Before Lincoln died, he established the Freedmen’s Bureau to offer physical aid to war refugees and extablish equitable labor agreements between blacks and their former masters. Radical Republicans like Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts and Congressman Thaddeus Stevens of Pennsylvania fought for bills that would help the freed slaves integrate into the American society and gain equal rights with their white citizens. The culmination of all this was the Civil Rights Bill and the Fourteenth Amendment, which entitled all citizens equal protection under the law, allowed African Americans the power to make their own labor contracts and initiate lawsuits, and entrusted upon the federal government the power to protect equal rights and citizenship to all its citizens.

Despite these guarantees, African Americans had reason to fear the fragility of these rights in the face of Southern racism and resistance. After the Fourteenth Amendment was passed, a riot took place in Memphis where nearly fifty black men, women and children were massacred by white police officers and mobs, and numerous homes, churches, schools and businesses were looted and burned down. A similar riot took place in New Orleans, where a white mob attacked a Union convention and killed forty-six African Americans and injuring sixty more.

In spite of these examples of white resistance, African Americans were able to vote as a result of the Reconstruction Act of 1867. On February 3, 1870, the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was passed to insure that the right to vote was not denied to a person due to race or any previous condition of servitude. Here are some of the black Congressmen who played a prominent role in the Congress during Reconstruction.

Hiram Revels was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate when he took his office on February 25, 1870. He represented the state of Mississippi by election of the state legislature. He had come to replace Jefferson Davis, the previous Senator of Mississippi who resigned his seat to become the president of the Confederacy. Hiram was born in 1822 in North Carolina and was educated in a Quaker seminary and at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He was a preacher and a minister who was known for his moderation and his high intelligence. Newspapers praised him for his oratorical skills, and he used those skills to fight attempts to keep Washington D.C. schools segregated and to help black workers from being barred from working in the Washington D.C. Navy yard. Revels was Senator from 1870 to 1871, retiring to become the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in Mississippi.

Robert Smalls was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives and served from 1875-1879 and 1882-1883 in South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and from 1884-1887 in South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. Smalls achieved famed during the Civil War as a slave who escaped to the Union by comandeering a Confederate steamer and sneaking it across Union lines. With his knowledge of the South’s waterways, Smalls took part in seventeen naval battles against the Confederacy, and he became a celebrated military hero by war’s end. During his time in Congress, Representative Smalls introduce legislation to integrate Army regiments and to give women the right to vote, neither of which was considered by the House. Smalls was successful in passing legislation that created the first public school system in America in South Carolina.

Robert Brown Elliott served in the House of Representatives for South Carolina from 1871 to 1874. Elliott was born in Liverpool, England in 1842, graduated from Eton College, and served in the Royal Navy. In 1867, Elliott moved to South Carolina and established a law practice. While in the Congress, Elliott was most famous for his oratory skills. His most famous speech was in support of a civil rights bill that Senator Charles Sumner had wrote that would grant equal access to all citizens to public accomodations. Sumner had died in March 1874, so Elliott took up the cause to get the bill passed.

This brief moment of racial progress eventually was undone when the federal government withdrew troops from the South and ended the period of Reconstruction. The North had grown weary of the effort necessary to protect African American rights and this gave an opening for white Southerners to reassert its authority. The Ku Klux Klan attracted former Confederate soldiers and disaffected whites and they began a campaign of assault, rape, and intimidation upon the freed blacks, Republicans, and any whites who were sympathetic to the blacks’ cause. Whites took over the seats of government and began whittling away at the gains in civil rights of the Reconstruction period. And two specific political incidents weakened the political power of those who supported the civil rights of African Americans.

A major blow to the black cause was the falling out between Senator Charles Sumner and President Ulysses S. Grant. With the death of Thaddeus Stevens in 1868, Sumner was the most passionate advocate for the rights of African Americans in Congress. When he offended Grant by criticizing the President’s plan to annex the Caribbean island of Santo Domingo, Sumner lost a vital political ally. He compounded the error by endorsing Horace Greely for the 1872 election and his political clout with the Grant administration was weakened considerably when Grant won reeelection. This severely hindered Sumner’s efforts to pass federal legislation to guarantee equal access for all citizens to public accomodations. Sumners died in 1874 before this legislation passsed Congress, and Representative Robert Brown Elliott took up the fight to pass Sumner’s accomodations bill.

The other major blow was the splintering of the equal rights movement when important members of the women’s suffragist movement were outraged that women were not included with black men in the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendment’s guarantees of the right to vote and the right of equality under the law. The most prominent leaders who were alienated were Susan B. Anthony and Elizabeth Cady Stanton. They had strongly fought for abolition and the rights of African Americans as part of a larger fight for universal human rights, and they felt betrayed when white and black women were excluded from the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments. Philip Dray wrote:

"This rift between women’s rights advocates and civil rights activists- ‘one of the saddest divorces in American history,’ the historian William McFeely has termed it- was painful for both sides. Women were understandably angry to be sidelined in the postwar push for freedmen’s rights. But civil rights supporters, facing an uphill battle of their own, came to resent the complaints from those they once considered natural allies. It was an embarrassing quandary for which many abolitionists had no good resolution; philosophically they knew the women were right; however, they could not help but take offense when women expressed indignation that ‘illiterate black men’ would be able to vote before educated white women. Garrison and Sumner, Douglass and Phillips, while supporting women’s suffrage in principal, denied its alleged urgency. The nation, they believed, had been conditioned by the war’s sacrifice to accept the empowerment of the freedmen but was not prepared to endorse women as voters; Phillips insisted that burdening the one good cause with the other would resemble putting too many bundles in a small boat, sinding all of them together."

Considering how the right gained by African American men were gradually being taken away as the North grew tired of Reconstruction, African Americans needed as may allies as possible. Anthony made the point that when a window of opportunity for social change occurred, one must push for as much change as possible before that window closes.

In the 1890s, African Americans saw the rights that they had gained during Reconstruction disappear. Lynchings were becoming commonplace in the South to intidimidate African Americans. In 1877 the Supreme Court narrowed the interpetation of the Fourteenth and Fifteenth Amendments so that the Federal Government couldn’t enforce equal rights in public accomodations, destroying Charles Sumner’s civil rights law. The Supreme Court established in Plessy Versus Ferguson in 1896 the "seperate but equal" fiction that served as the legal foundations for the Jim Crow laws in the South.

George H. White of North Carolina was the last black Southerner of the Ninteenth Century to serve in Congress. He served from 1897 to 1901, and he was the sole black legislator in the U.S. He had attempted, without success, to pass anti-lynching laws. On January 29, 1901 he gave his last speech to Congress. He said:

"This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrial, loyal people, rising people, full of potential force… The only apology I have for the earnestness with which I have spoken is that I am pleading for the life, the liberty, the future happiness, and manhood suffrage for one-eighth of the entire population of the United States."

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