Reconstruction was a unique era in African-American history, when Southern blacks gained the right to hold political office. This resulted in many African-American firsts, like the first black senators and members of the House of Representatives. The federal occupation of the South during the years after the Civil War allowed African-Americans to serve at numerous levels of government, though their political power remained limited.
On February 25, 1870, Hiram Revels became the first African-American to serve in Congress as a U.S. Senator. Revels represented the state of Mississippi as a Republican, and was born to free black parents in North Carolina. Revels' arrival in the Senate was not without controversy. Some members voted to block his seat, arguing he was not qualified. Despite these initial setbacks, other blacks went on to hold Senate seats during Reconstruction. In 1875, Blanche Kelso Bruce was also elected to the Senate as a Republican from Mississippi. Unlike Revels, Bruce completed a full term in office. During his term, Bruce also supported the seating of Pinckney Pinchback, a black Senator-elect from Louisiana, in Congress, but the Senate voted Pinchback down and refused to seat him. When Bruce left office, he was the last black senator to serve until the 1960s.
The end of the Civil War also brought numerous blacks to the House of Representatives. Between 1870 and 1887, a total of 17 African-Americans served in Congress. All were Republicans and all represented states in the post-Confederate South. The first black Congressman was Joseph Rainey, a Republican from South Carolina, who was sworn in in 1870. After 1877, the end of Reconstruction reduced blacks' ability to hold political office, and black representatives in Congress declined markedly. No African-Americans, for example, served between 1901 and 1929, and only 22 served in the entire 19th century.
After the Civil War, African Americans had unprecedented access to seats in state legislatures. In total, over 600 blacks served in various Reconstruction Era state legislatures. In addition, blacks briefly comprised the majority in South Carolina's lower house. Black Republicans joined white Northern carpetbaggers to form Republican majorities in all the Southern state legislatures except Virginia's in the years immediately after the Civil War. By the 1870s, however, divisions among Republicans and white resentment led to a large decline in black representation in state legislatures.
While blacks faired reasonably well in legislative positions -- state legislatures and the U.S. Congress -- they gained less power in executive positions. In Louisiana, two black men served as Lieutenant Governor in succession: Oliver Dunn followed by P.B.S. Pinchback. When the sitting governor was impeached, Pinchback became the acting governor briefly between December 1872 and January of 1873. Pinchback was the only governor of any state during Reconstruction, and was the only black governor in the United States until 1989, when Virginia elected Douglas Wilder. Blacks were thus highly limited in their ability to hold gubernatorial positions after the Civil War.
- United States Senate: February 25, 1870: First African American Senator
- United States House of Representatives: Bruce, Blanche Kelso
- United States Senate: Congressional Research Service: African American Members of the United States Congress: 1870-2012
- University of Houston: Digital History: The Aftermath of Slavery
- PBS: The Black Governor Who Was Almost a Senator
- Huffington Post: Frederick Douglass Becomes First Black Candidate Placed In Nomination For President On This Day in History
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