The Black Congressmen (and one Woman) of Reconstruction
After the Civil War ended, the Republicans as “the party of Lincoln” ushered in an era in which for the first time African Americans were able to enter the annals of public office. In 1867, Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts, which required the former Confederate states to exist under military rule until they wrote new state constitutions allowing black men to own property, participate in the public sphere, and otherwise be equal in the eyes of the law. These acts were ratified as the 13th Amendment, which abolished slavery, the14th Amendment, which assured citizenship for all those born or naturalized in the United States, and the 15th Amendment, assuring their right to vote (though for men only). This was the era of Reconstruction, and it lasted approximately twelve years from 1865 – 1877. It ended when the election of President Rutherford B. Hayes was validated on the condition that federal forces leave the South. Afterward, the culture of racism prevailed and southern black citizens would once again have to flee the north to access more opportunity.
During those twelve years, however, Southern states saw an incredible increase in the elections of African American men to public offices ranging from local to federal. Around 2,000 positions  in fact. I discuss one of them, Blanche Kelso Bruce, who was the first black Senator to serve a full term, at the beginning of my Historic Alleyways tour because his home was just outside Blagden Alley. He was in good company in the 1870s, with several dozen black congressmen, ambassadors, and other office holders attempting to fight for enduring civil rights. The end of Reconstruction would essentially mark the end of black participation in the political sphere in the south until the Civil Rights Movement. So in honor of Black History Month, I would like to share the stories of a few of these notables who lived in Washington, DC during their political careers.
Hiram Revels – Senator of Mississippi 1870 – 1871
Address: 1826 K Street NW
Hiram Revels has the distinction of being the first man of both black and Native American ancestry to be elected to the Senate, though he did not serve a full term. Revels was born free in North Carolina in 1827, to free black parents. His mother had Scottish lineage, and his father was of mixed African, European, and Native American ancestry. His father was a Baptist preacher, and Revels himself would go into the church, ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) denomination. He was educated from a young age, and even ran a family –owned barbershop in North Carolina in his youth. He had a sharp intelligence, which became clearer as he maneuvered his way through various seminaries in Indiana.
His participation in politics began when he was stationed as a pastor in Natchez, Mississippi. In 1868, three years into Reconstruction, he was elected first as an Alderman of Natchez, and then a elected to represent Adams Country in the State Senate. In 1870, he was elected to fill a U.S. Senate seat for Mississippi that had stood vacant since the state seceded. His election was protested by Southern Democrats, who pointed to the Dred Scott decision as negating his citizenship before the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. According to the law, someone had to be a U.S. citizen for at least 9 years before holding public office. Their argument was that according to the Supreme Court decision he only gained his citizenship in the past two years, voiding his election. Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner came to his defense, stating “The time has passed for argument. Nothing more need be said. For a long time it has been clear that colored persons must be Senators.” Revels was sworn in on February 25th, 1870 to a gawking crowd who all stood to witness history being made. In a feature on Revels later that year, “New Era,” a black-run Reconstruction Era newspaper, reported “Full believers had hoped for it, timid anti-slavery men feared it, the Democratic press had denounced its coming as calamity, but nobody expected it would come upon us so soon. Yet here it was, all at once.”
As a Senator, Revels was moderate towards ex-Confederates, but fought for racial equality. He strove to prove that African Americans deserved to have voices in politics and other social spheres. He was known as a powerful orator, and eloquently made the argument for 29 black Georgia state legislators, who were elected and then unseated by moderate Republicans and Southern Democrats, to be let back in as a condition of Georgia’s re-admission to the Union. He served on the Committee of Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia.
As a former teacher, he was an advocate for the education of formerly enslaved people, and African Americans overall. He was also anti-segregation, though admitted that in his experience it was difficult for blacks and whites to mingle. Nonetheless, he also nominated the first black candidate to West Point Military Academy, Michael Howard. He also fought the admittance of black mechanics to the U.S. Navy Yard in SE DC.
Unfortunately, when his seat came up for reelection in 1871 he declined to run. He accepted a position as the first black President of Alcorn University, named for his political ally and successor to the Senate seat. Alcorn University was the first land-grant university for black students. He was later elected as Secretary of State of Mississippi’s government. While in this position he became disillusioned with the endemic corruption of politics and returned to the church.
Blanche K. Bruce – Senator of Mississippi, 1875 - 1881
909 M Street NW
Blanche Kelso Bruce was born a slave in Virginia, the son of his mother’s master. Though a slave, he was tutored alongside his white half-brother. He escaped to Kansas during the Civil War, where he attempted to enlist in the Union Army. However, his application was refused for unknown reasons (this could have been before the Union Army was accepting African Americans). Instead, he moved to Missouri and opened a school for black children. After the war ended, he wanted to obtain his Divinity degree from Oberlin College but couldn’t afford the tuition. He worked as a steamboat porter on the Mississippi River, eventually moving to
Mississippi in 1869. During that time he caught the eye of Republicans and was approached about getting involved in politics. When the first postwar Mississippi legislature met in late 1870, Bruce was elected sergeant at arms. In 1871, he was elected to the joint office of sheriff and tax collector of Bolivar County. One of his greatest achievements in his early political career was turning the Bolivar County school system into one of the best in the state, with equal funding for both black and white schools (they were still segregated).
He became a well-known political figure in Mississippi politics during Reconstruction, and was unanimously voted by the state legislature to fill a senate seat in 1875. Though quiet during his initial Senate sessions, he would use his voice to promote other black men running for high office. He also fought to desegregate the Army, to end the hazing of black soldiers, and for the heirs of black war Veterans to receive access to their pensions. He also fought discrimination against other minorities and racial groups, including Native Americans and Chinese workers. He debated against the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was the first bill restricting immigration. He also criticized the way in which the U.S. was expanding territories in conflict with treaties struck with Native American Tribes.
Despite these efforts, Blanche was more popular with his white colleagues than his black constituents. He was seen as an elitist. He and his wife were also favorites in DC high society. As a relatively light-skinned black man, he was more readily accepted in white as much as black circles. Nonetheless, as Reconstruction came to a close the Mississippi state legislature returned to its old prejudices and only promoted white candidates. He did not run for a second term, but remained in Washington, DC where he obtained other political appointments, including Register of the Treasury. He died in Washington, DC in 1898, and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery.
Richard Harvey Cain – House of Representatives South Carolina – (1873 – 1875) and (1877 – 1879), Lived at 637 C Avenue SE
Richard Harvey Cain was born in current West Virginia (his town was part of Virginia before the war). His mother was Cherokee, and his father was a freeman. The family moved to Ohio, where Richard was able to get an education. He entered the Methodist ministry, which took him to Missouri, where he joined the A.M.E. Church. To further his education, he enrolled in Wilberforce University. When the Civil War broke out he attempted to enlist in the Union Army, but was turned away. He moved to New York to be the pastor at a church in Brooklyn. His involvement in politics began when he attended the national black convention in Syracuse and argued for equal voting rights.
After the A.M.E assigned him to a church in South Carolina, he founded a political newspaper, the South Carolina Leader. The paper served as a political platform and voice for the black population of Cain’s district. He served on the state constitutional convention, and was elected to the State Senate in 1968. As someone who was somewhat successful in state politics and a well known advocate for civil rights issues, Cain became known as “Daddy Cain”. He established an African American community known as “Lincolnville” with his own funds when funds that were to come from Federal land sales failed to materialize. He decided to run for an At-Large seat in the US House of Representatives in 1872, and won with 72% of the vote.
One of his greatest endeavors was his fight to pass the first Civil Rights Bill, which Republicans had struggled with since 1870. In arguing for the passing of the bill, Cain eloquently stated on the Senate floor,
“Now I am at a loss to see how the friendship of our white friends can be lost to
us by simply saying we should be permitted to enjoy the rights enjoyed by other
citizens…We do not want any discrimination. I do not ask for any legislation for
colored people of this country that is not applied to the white people. All that we
ask is equal laws, equal legislation, and equal rights….”
The first Civil Rights Act was passed in 1875, but it fell short of some of Cain’s goals, including desegregating public schools.
His seat was not renewed for the next election, but he won the seat in a different African-American-majority district in 1876. He then set to improving the Civil Rights Act by appropriate money from land sales to funding public schools. He also explored the idea of establishing a free colony in Africa. As Reconstruction started to wind down, he feared the re-establishment of white supremacy in the South. He even became a member of the Liberian Exodus Join Stock Steamship Company to help establish trade routes between the US and West Africa. The Evening Star reported the establishment of the company in 1878:
“The American and African Commercial Company” have filed a certificate of
incorporation in the Recorder of Deeds Office – Mssrs Richard H. Cain, Samual R
Watts, Benj. F Porter, incorporators. Their object is to manufacture, store, sell,
ship, transport and deal in wares and merchandise, and to contract for to build
and maintain ships, wharves, warehouses, grain elevators, and any work of public
or private improvement, with power to purchase, hold, mortgage and convey real
and personal property. The capital stock is $500,000, to be divided into shares of
$100 each. The affairs to be managed by a board of directors.”
After his second term in the House ended, Cain joined the church and was ordained as a Bishop. He lived in DC while serving the AME Conference with jurisdiction in the mid–Atlantic and New England states, overseeing his new post from the nation’s capital, until he died on January 18, 1887. He is buried at Woodlawn Cemetery.
Francis L. Cardozo – South Carolina Secretary of State, Educator
Lived at 1920 12th Street NW
He didn’t serve in Congress, but the Cardozo name is a well-known one in DC. Francis Lewis Cardozo was born free from a Sephardic Jewish father and a free Black mother. His father was a prominent businessman who ensured his children received an education. As a youth he apprenticed in several skills, and attended top universities in Scotland and England. Like many of the men listed here, the church was the beginning of his path. He obtained a ministry in New England, and then moved back down to South Carolina at the end of the Civil War to be the Director of the American Missionary Association. He also headed the Avery Normal Institute, an educational institution that trained African American teachers.
In 1867, he was elected to the black constitutional convention. He then became the first African American man to hold a state office wen he was elected as Secretary of State for South Carolina in 1868. He held other key positions in the state government, included state treasurer, and headed organizations that fought for workers rights and equality, such as the state land commission. Obtaining access to land grants for African Americans would be something for which most black politicians of the Reconstruction would strive. When Reconstruction ended, he was brought up on charges of corruption during his tenure as treasurer, but pardoned by South Carolina governor W.D. Simpson on the condition that federal charges be dropped against some white Democrats. Such manipulation and wheeling and dealing were typical in the post-Reconstruction South.
In 1878, Cardozo moved to Washington, DC, where he circulated amongst the black elite, befriending influential politicians like Blanche K. Bruce. He obtained a position as a clerk at the Treasury Department, and served as the Principal of the Colored Preparatory High School in 1884. Later known as the M Street High School, and even later Dunbar High School, this educational institution would go on to have associations with members of the black renaissance in the early 20th century. His great grand-daughter Eslanda Cardozo would marry Paul Robeson, a famous black singer and political activist of the 1930s and 40s.
A different high school, Central High School, was a segregated school up until 1950 when they began admitting black students. The school is located at 13th and Clifton, in the Columbia Heights neighborhood. Administrators renamed it Cardozo High School when it became a fully integrated school in the 1960s, in honor of a man who fought for access to education for African Americans his entire career. It is now the Cardozo Educational Campus.
Robert Browne Elliott - House Representative, South Carolina (42nd and 43rd Congress); Lived at 1416 I Street NW
Robert Browne Elliot was born in Liverpool, England to West Indian parents, but joined the fight for equality when he moved to the United States in 1867. He had been serving in the British Navy when he landed in Boston, met a free black woman, married her, and decided to stay in the United States. The couple moved to South Carolina, and he became passionately involved in local politics. He had had a traditional British education and attended Eton College, which impressed both his white and black colleagues. An excellent orator, he became well known on his ability to speak on topics with agility and keen intelligence. He served several positions in the state government, including assistant adjutant general, which gave him the authority to raise a militia to protect black citizens against the Ku Klux Klan. Republicans nominated him to run for a U.S. House seat for South Carolina in 1870. Incidentally, it was the seat that had been held by Preston Brooks, the representative who had beaten abolitionist Charles Sumner within an inch of his life with a cane on the Capitol steps. Elliott won the election, and became known as the first “genuine African” in Congress due his complexion, which was darker than many of his black colleagues who came from mixed race backgrounds.
He moved to 1416 I Street NW, a building that no longer exists. He was considered a “Radical Republican” who fought for a strong Civil Rights Bill, opposed concessions for Confederate leaders, and publicly condemned the Ku Klux Klan, stating “It is the custom, sire, of Democratic journals to stigmatize the negroes of the South as being in a semi-barbarous condition; but pray tell me, who is the barbarian here?” referring to the Klan’s violent history. He helped to pass a bill that strengthened voting rights for black men and enabled President Ulysses S. Grant to prosecute Ku Klux Klan members who had committed violence against African Americans. He returned to South Carolina to campaign for his re-election, and feared so much for his life that he wrote instructions to his wife in case of his death. Nonetheless, he was elected for a 2nd term in 1872. He served on the Committee of the Militia and helped to push through Charles Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill. When speaking on the subject on the House floor, he criticized detractors of the Bill who construed it as Federal overstepping and unconstitutional. He asserted that the purpose of the bill was to ensure that civil rights, including women’s rights, were protected under the constitution. Discrimination in many spheres of life was still a reality for many non-white, non-male Americans throughout the country. Like his colleague Hiram Revels, he served on the Committee for Education and Labor. Not much is known about his life in DC unfortunately, and as Reconstruction ended he did not win a third term in Congress.
In 1874, Robert Elliott gave the eulogy at Charles Sumner’s funeral at Fanueil Hall in Boston. Afterward he would return to South Carolina and resign his post. Though a popular politician amongst black Americans, he was jaded by the political corruption within the Republican party. He served in the State Assembly as Speaker from 1874 until 1877, when Reconstruction officially ended and vengeful white Carolinians forced him out of his post. He then served as a customs inspector for the US Treasury Department, in Charleston. He also attempted to start a law practice, but was largely unsuccessful. After the Treasury Department relocated him to New Orleans, his appointment was then terminated and he couldn’t afford to return to South Carolina. Sadly, he would pass away in New Orleans with barely a penny to his name. He is buried in St. Louis Cemetery #2 in New Orleans.
John M. Langston – General Inspector, Minister to Haiti
Lived at 4 1/2 C College Avenue NW (address no longer exists)
John Mercer Langston was born in 1829 in Virginia to a white planter and a freed woman of black and Native American descent. Orphaned at a young age, he was raised in Ohio by family friends who were abolitionists. He attended white public school and a private school for black children, eventually enrolling in Oberlin College, one of the first private colleges to accept black and female students. At Oberlin he studied law and passed the Ohio bar, becoming the first black lawyer of the western frontier. He became heavily involved in the abolitionist movement, and was appointed President of the Ohio Anti-Slavery Society. During the Civil War he recruited for the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments and a Ohio regiment of the Union Army. He was a vocal advocate for equality, stating in a November 1865 speech “We ask for more than liberty at work and to eat and to die. The negro steps up in the presence of the white American lawmakers, statesmen and politicians…and demands none other than absolute equality before American Law…that our fathers gave on July 4, 1776, to the world.”
In 1867, he was named General Inspector for the Freedmen’s Bureau, and travelled the southern states recruiting support for the Republican party and touting the importance of education for freedmen. He was also involved in local DC matters, serving on the Board of Health, and was appointed Dean of Howard University’s Law School. As a reward for his tireless support of the Republican Party, he was appointed Minister to Haiti by President Rutherford B. Hayes, serving from 1877 - 1885. Ironically, it was Hayes’ election that sealed the death of Reconstruction. Upon Langston’s return, he remained largely involved in DC and Virginian affairs, continuing to push for education and teacher training for black Americans. He also ran the Richmond Land and Finance Association, which purchased large swaths of land in order to resell small lots to freedmen. He was reportedly himself worth $100,000, making him one of the wealthiest members of DC’s black elite in the late-19th Century. Langston died in DC in 1897 and is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery. His great-nephew and namesake Langston Hughes would come to DC in 1926 and himself become part of a Black Renaissance that took root on U Street.
Joseph Rainey: Representative, South Carolina; Speaker of the House
1869 – 1879; Lived at 18 1/2 11th Street NW, 1723 10th Street NW, 1433 L Street NW
Joseph Rainey had the longest political career of anyone else I’ve noted here. He was the first black man to serve in the House of Representatives, representing the southeast region of South Carolina. He served five consecutive terms in the course of a decade, at one point even presiding as Speaker of the House. He was born enslaved in South Carolina in 1832. His father was able to buy his family’s freedom from money he earned on the side as a barber. Joseph would go into the same trade in Charleston. He travelled to Pennsylvania, where he met and married his wife, then they returned to Charleston. When the war broke out, Joseph was forced to work for the Confederate Navy, building fortifications for the city and serving on the crew of Confederate ships. He and his wife escaped and moved to Bermuda, which had abolished slavery in 1834. There they waited out the war until 1866, then returned to South Carolina.
Upon his return, Joseph quickly became involved in politics. He helped found the Republican Party in South Carolina, attended the first state congressional congress, and was elected to State Senate. In 1870, the southeastern US House seat became vacant and Rainey was elected to fulfill the rest of the term. During that term he argued in favor of the Ku Klux Klan Act, which called on federal forces to intervene in cases of white terrorist violence against African Americans. The Act also empowered Federal District Attorneys to prosecute perpetrators of this violence. Ulysses S. Grant signed the Ku Klux Klan Act into law later that year. Rainey also supported Charles Sumner’s proposed Civil Rights Bill, which called to outlaw racial discrimination in the public sphere including juries, transportation and schools.
Throughout his career he strove to establish protections for equal rights for all, not only African Americans. He also worked with Native American tribes and immigrant workers. Like Blanche K. Bruce, he opposed the Chinese Exclusion Act. He not only fought for civil and political rights, but economic rights. He worked to ensure that funds from the defunct Freedmen Bank were distributed to the African American communities, and that money from Federal land sales was used to establish public schools.
Even though he was re-elected three times, each subsequent election became more and more contentious, even violent. His challengers came from the more moderate Republican faction and of course, Southern Democrats. As Reconstruction loosened its hold, there was evidence of voter intimidation and his winning margins became slim. His last term was 1877 – 79. Throughout this time he lived in three different addresses in Washington, DC , primarily around downtown. After his final term, he returned to South Carolina as a representative for the U.S. Treasury. He then went into business for himself until he died in 1881.
All of these Congressmen/office holders were unique in their impact, and only represent a small number of people who strove to improve the lives of African Americans at a time when it seemed the country was heading into a better era. I realize that I’ve primarily highlighted men in this post, and that is due to the fact that women could not hold office during this time. However, that did not mean that women were passive observers of the Reconstruction process. Many were organizers, advocates, community leaders, and activists. I am spotlighting one in particular, because she actually lived in DC. That is not to mean there weren’t others. There were, and many of them. But this is a blog about DC history, so forgive their omission.
Mary Ann Shadd Cary – Abolitionist, Teacher, Lawyer, Suffragist
Lived at 1421 W Street NW
Mary Ann Shadd Cary was born to free parents in the state of Delaware in 1823, which at the time was a slave state. Her parents used their home as a station on the Underground Railroad. Mary was educated by Quakers, who were staunch abolitionists. She herself would take up the abolitionist cause. She even wrote an essay decrying the limitations of the abolitionist movement in 1848, including its focus only on men. She sent it to Frederick Douglass, who published it publicly, making it her first published work. In it she says:
“We have been holding conventions for years — we have been assembling together and whining over our difficulties and afflictions, passing resolutions on resolutions to any extent,” she wrote. “But it does really seem that we have made but little progress considering our resolves.”
Her family moved to Canada after the approval of the Fugitive Slave Act, and she became a community leader for free black people. She attended the first Northern American Convention of Free Black Folk in Toronto. She also founded and ran an integrated school that welcomed African American refugees. She became the first black woman to publish a newspaper, called the Provincial Freeman, which recounted success stories of free people who made it to Canada further making the case for immigration.
When the Civil War broke out, Mary returned to the United States and recruited for the Union Army. She came to Washington, DC towards the end of the war and became a teacher, continuing her work in educating black children. She applied and was accepted to Howard University’s School of Law, becoming the first black woman to obtain a law degree. Her focus then became the women’s suffrage movement, and she worked with Susan B. Anthony and Alice Paul in fighting towards that end. In 1871 she led a group of 60 black and white women in Washington, DC who attempted to register to vote but were denied, and in 1874 was one of 600 people who signed a petition to grant women the right to vote. In the 1880s she established the Colored Women’s Progressive Franchise Association. Unfortunately, she would not live to see women’s suffrage become a reality. She passed away in DC in 1893. Her descendants have been DC residents every since.
The Reconstruction Era served as a time of hope for many who thought that the evils of America’s legacy would be left behind and a new horizon would bring forth the light of perpetual freedom. Though the Constitutional amendments that were established during this period (14th, 15th, and 16th) were intended to guarantee equality for all, de jure does not always mean de facto. As soon as federal forces were withdrawn from the former confederate states in 1877, the South slid backwards and many aspects of civic and public life, such as voting, education, access to jobs, all were at the discretion of the white population. The last black politician in the post-Reconstruction era was Robert White of North Carolina, who left office in 1901. There would not be another black man in Congress until 1929 until Illinois elected Oscar de Priest. But the Jim Crow South staunched political participation by African Americans until the Civil Rights Movement would convince the highest leaders of the land to ensure equal right were accorded to all more explicitly in Federal law. President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 thanks to the Movement's efforts, in particular those of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. The first black congresspeople elected by a Southern state thereafter were Barbara Charlene Jordan of Texas and Andrew Jackson Young Jr. of Georgia, both elected to the House of Representatives in 1973. The 1970s also saw the formation of the Congressional Black Caucus, which has ensured representation and participation by the African American Community for 50 years.
 “Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era,” Rabinowitz, Howard, pg. 2 “Senate Stories | Hiram Revels: First African American Senator” by the Senate Historical Office, February 25, 2020  New Era, 23 June 1870, Thurs, pg. 2  Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (10 January 1874): 565–567  Evening Star, 09 August 1878, Fri, pg 4  U.S. House of Representatives, Office of the Historian, Biography page on Robert Browne Elliott, https://history.house.gov/People/Detail/12753  “Southern Black Leaders of the Reconstruction Era,” Rabinowitz, Howard, pg. 128