Image courtesy of Library of Congress
The arrival of Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina on Capitol Hill in 1870 ranks among the great paradoxes in American history; just a decade earlier, these African Americans’ congressional seats were held by southern slave owners. Moreover, the U.S. Capitol, where these newest Members of Congress came to work—the center of legislative government, conceived by its creators as the “Temple of Liberty”—had been constructed with the help of enslaved laborers.1 From this beginning, Black Americans in Congress, 1870–2007 chronicles African Americans’ participation in the federal legislature and their struggle to attain full civil rights.
The institution of Congress, and the careers of the black Members who have served in both its chambers, have undergone extensive changes during this span of nearly 140 years.2 But while researching and writing this book, we encountered several recurring themes that led us to ask the following questions: What were black Members’ legislative priorities? Which legislative styles did African Americans employ to integrate into the institution? How did they react to the political culture of Capitol Hill and how did they overcome institutional racism? Lastly, how did the experiences of these individuals compare to those of other newly enfranchised Americans?