African Americans received freedom and citizenship with the ratifications of the 13th Amendment and 14th Amendments in 1865 and 1868, respectively. Then, in 1870, the 15th Amendment extended the vote to African American males. As many as 2,000 African American men held political office in the period from 1865 to 1877. This democratic moment faded when President Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew protective federal troops from the South in 1877. By the early 1900s, African American public officials were virtually non-existent.
Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in Congress. On February 25, 1870, Rhodes joined the U.S. Senate, filling the position vacated by Albert Brown when Mississippi seceded in 1861. Revels, a Republican, represented the interests of African Americans throughout the nation. His first action as a senator was to challenge the refusal of the Georgia legislature to seat duly elected African Americans. Revels also sought to ease racial animosity in the South by supporting an amnesty for almost all former Confederate partisans.
Booker T. Washington
Though he never held an elective office, Booker Taliaferro Washington exercised political power within the African American community. In 1881, Washington founded the Tuskegee Institute in Alabama to provide an education for African Americans. His influence grew from the prestigious association with the college as well as his talent for communication and compromise and his popularity as a speaker. Subsequently, he became the most prominent African American, receiving financial support from such noted philanthropists as Andrew Carnegie. The so-called Tuskegee political machine used its influence to dispense federal patronage jobs and education funds to African Americans. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to dinner in 1901. This occasion represented the first time a President met with an African American socially.
Blanche Kelso Bruce
Blanche K. Bruce served in the U.S. Senate from 1875 to 1881. Bruce made his first speech as senator in 1876, a full year after taking office. He broke this silence to lobby for the seating of fellow African American Republican, Pinckney (P.B.S) Pinchback of Louisiana. The Senate had refused to certify Pinchback‘s election. Demonstrating compassion for other ethnicities, Bruce denounced immigration restrictions placed on the Chinese.
George Henry White
George Henry White was the last African American to serve in Congress during the 1800s. White, a Republican Representative from North Carolina, completed his final term in 1901. While in Congress, White was the first politician to issue a bill to stop the lynching of African Americans. There would be no more African Americans in Congress until the 1928 election of Oscar de Priest, an Illinois Republican. No former Confederate states would send another African American to Congress until the 1973 elections of Democratic Representatives Barbara Jordan of Texas and Andrew Young of Georgia.
- U.S. House of Representatives: Reconstruction‘s New Order
- U.S. House of Representatives: The Negroes’ Temporary Farewell
- U.S. House of Representatives: Revels, Hiram Rhodes
- PBS: Booker T. Washington
- NPR: Teddy Roosevelt's 'Shocking' Dinner with Washington
- U.S. House of Representatives: Bruce, Blanche Kelso
- U. S. History: People Who Helped Make the Republic Great, 1620-Present; Victor Hicken
- Documenting the American South: George H. White
- White House: Pathbreakers Oscar Stanton DePriest and Jessie L. Williams DePriest
- Women in Congress, 1917-2006; Matthew Andrew Wasniewski
- Hulton Archive/Hulton Archive/Getty Images