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A Quartet To Remember
Since the Civil War the nation has sent just four African-Americans to the Senate. Why?
April 1999 | Volume 50, Issue 2
Here we are with only nine months left in which our computers have to learn that two-digit numbers signifying a year must be assumed to follow a 20 and not a 19. Otherwise they will shut down the world. My apprehension is lightened by a certain Luddite smugness—so much for smart machines! But while thinking about this and related issues, it occurs to me that a minor note of interest about the November 1998 election has been overlooked. The 106th Congress, chosen then and sitting now, will be the last to serve in the twentieth century.
That in turn gives a certain additional weight to one of the results in my home state of Illinois. The senior senator, Carol Moseley-Braun, elected in 1992, was defeated in her bid for a second term. She was widely recognized as the first African-American woman to serve in that body. Fewer people know that she was only the second black senator elected since 1900. Sen. Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, the other, was elected in 1966 and served until the close of 1978. And carrying it back further, there were also just two in the nineteenth century, one of them, Hiram Revels, serving out a term of just over a year (1870-71) and the other, Blanche K. Bruce, completing six years in office (1875-81). Both men came from Mississippi and, like all senators until 1913, were chosen by the state legislature.
This seems a dismaying reflection on just how “representative” our institutions have been, but rather than preach the obvious, I would prefer to look at these four senatorial careers in the context of their times and offer a few provisional conclusions and risky forecasts. We begin chronologically with Senator Revels.
Revels and Bruce both were products of Reconstruction’s experiment in building a black-and-white Republican party in the South. Under laws passed in 1867, the occupied “Rebel” states, in order to regain their rights in the Union, had to create and ratify new state constitutions and then elect new governments through elections that enfranchised the freed slaves but barred voting and officeholding to almost anyone connected with the late Confederacy. This process had been completed in Mississippi by 1870, and its reconstructed Republican legislature was empowered to choose senators to fill seats that had been vacant during military rule. One of them was for a term that had only fourteen months left to run, and forty-two-year-old Revels, then a state senator from Natchez, got it.
Revels was exactly the kind of African-American poised to grasp the opportunities that emancipation and suffrage offered. He had been born free in North Carolina and had acquired some basic education while supporting himself as a barber. The path led upward through a seminary in Indiana to ordination in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and he had settled in Natchez as a minister and teacher, where he became involved in Republican politics.
When Revels arrived to take his seat in February of 1870, he ran into strong resistance from Democrats, especially border-state racists like Delaware’s Willard Saulsbury and Kentucky’s Garrett Davis. Both found technical grounds for challenging his election, and both were unabashed in voicing opinions that would be unthinkable to acknowledge openly a century later. Saulsbury had introduced a memorial urging legislation to “secure the Government of the United States to the white race,” and Davis declared, “I do not know why the law of the universe permitted that race [blacks] to be brought here … unless it was to curse and to create another devil for the white man!” When the vote came, however, before packed galleries, Revels was seated by a straight party-line vote.
Being seated, however, was not the same as being heard. Revels got only a single minor bill passed and failed in all efforts to block measures he opposed. After his pioneering but brief tenure ended, he became president of state-supported Alcorn University for blacks from 1871 to 1882, with one brief intermission. He died in 1901.