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Black Americans in Congress 1870–2007

by Jo Freeman

Black Americans in Congress 1870–2007
Office of History and Preservation
Edited by Matthew A. Wasniewski
Published by Government Printing Office, 803 pp; ©2008

Black Americans in Congress 1870–2007 is a weighty book in many ways.

The second of four volumes on specific groups which have served in the US Congress, it is a comprehensive resource on the 121 African-Americans elected to both branches of the US Congress by the end of 2007. Those figures include five Delegates from the non-states of the Virgin Islands and the District of Columbia, and have since been augmented by two more Representatives as a result of special elections in 2008.

Unlike the many groups which have gradually expanded their presence in Congress, blacks have a bifurcated history. Between 1870 and 1901, 20 blacks served in the House and two in the Senate. From 1902 through 1928, none served. Despite the 15th Amendment, ratified in 1870, Southern states eventually found legal ways to remove blacks from the electorate. Between 1889 and 1908, black voters in the South were reduced to minuscule numbers. They all but disappeared from public office.

The 22 pioneers were all from the South and all Republicans. Eight Representatives came from South Carolina, where 60 percent of the population was black. The two Senators came from Mississippi, which only elected one Representative despite its majority black population. Texas, Tennessee and Virginia elected none.

In Congress they were marginalized. Feeling the need to speak for all of their race, not just the people in their districts, they struggled to be heard. Their voice inside Congress was slowly silenced as white attitudes toward blacks hardened, North and South. As the abolitionist generation died out, even the Republican Party sought to squeeze blacks out of the party so that it could appeal to Southern whites.

Blacks returned to Congress in 1929, after Oscar De Priest was elected from a Chicago district. De Priest was a Republican who had immigrated from Alabama, where he could not vote, to Chicago, where he could have a political career. Six years later the voters in his district replaced him with the first black Democrat. Arthur W. Mitchell was another Alabama emigrant who had been a Republican. He switched parties to run against De Priest, having been impressed by FDR’s policies and Chicago Mayor Kelly’s inducements. Overall, more blacks (14 Reps, two Senators) have been elected from Illinois than any other state.

By 1929 the Great Migration had sent millions of blacks north. Instead of being disfranchised they were recruited by the mostly Democratic big city machines. In the 1960s blacks who could vote became a reliable Democratic constituency. After De Priest, only two more Representatives and one Senator have been in the GOP. (Edward Brooke, MA 1967-78; Gary Franks, CT 1991-96; J. C. Watts, OK 1995-2002).

It would take the civil rights movement and the 1965 Voting Rights Act before blacks were again elected from the South. In 1972 Andrew Young was elected from Georgia and Barbara Jordan from Texas. By 2007 an additional 29 African Americans had been elected to Congress from the former Confederacy, all Democrats.

Impelled by the civil rights movement and court ordered redistricting more and more districts throughout the country elected black Americans to Congress every decade. By 1971 there were enough to organize the House Congressional Black Caucus (CBC). It’s purpose was to promote legislation of particular interest to African Americans and to advance its members into better committee assignments and leadership positions. The fact that partisanship does not divide the CBC gives it more clout than those caucuses (e.g., women) where the pulls of party have been divisive. Of the half dozen African Americans who ever held leadership positions in the Democratic Caucus, four hold them currently.

Black women have become a major presence. The first black woman was elected to Congress (Shirley Chisholm, 1968) 52 years after the first white woman (Jeanette Rankin, 1916). They made up for lost time. In the current (110th) Congress black women are 15.5 percent of the female Representatives and black men are 7.6 percent of the male Representatives. When the new Democratic majority organized the House in 2007 women headed 2 of the 5 committees chaired by blacks. (Both Juanita Millender-McDonald (D-CA) and Stephanie Tubbs Jones (D-OH) died in 2008).

Like its sister publication, Women in Congress 1917–2006, BAIC was researched and published by staff in the Office of History and Preservation of the House of Representatives. It is full of facts and figures and fascinating stories. There are historical essays as well as individual biographies. Graphs, charts, cartoons, photographs and other images make it an eminently viewable as well as readable book. It has an excellent index but could profit from a detailed Table of Contents that allowed a reader to more easily see what topics are covered. The footnotes are great guides to find even more information.

This is not the kind of book most would read from cover to cover. It is the kind of book that one explores both for business and pleasure. If you read, write, or research African-American history or US political history, you will want to keep it handy.


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