Politics and Government

Politics During the Reconstruction

What African Americans served in Congress during the Reconstruction period?

In 1868, John Willis Menard (1839–1893), a public official, was the first black elected to Congress. He was awarded his full salary but never seated. The committee on elections ruled that it was too early to admit a black to Congress. Menard was appointed inspector of customs of the Port of New Orleans. Born of French Creole parents living in Illinois, Menard moved to Louisiana after the Civil War to work for the Republican Party. When he was allowed to plead his own case on February 17, 1869, he became the first black to speak on the floor of the House.

Twenty African Americans were U.S. representatives and two were U.S. senators during the period of the Reconstruction. As early as 1869, Ebenezer Don Carlos Bassett (1833–1908) was named consul general to Haiti, becoming the nation’s first African-American diplomat. In 1857, prior to this appointment, he was principal of Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth. After completing his Haitian assignment in1877, he served for ten years as a general consul from Haiti to the United States. Hiram Rhodes Revels (1822–1901) was the first black U.S. senator. He was elected to fill the seat of Confederate President Jefferson Davis on January 20, 1870. He was born of free parents in North Carolina, and educated by Quakers in North Carolina and at Knox College in Illinois. He became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, a teacher, and a Freedmen’s Bureau worker in Mississippi. Revels was elected to the state senate in 1869 and elected U.S. Senator by the legislature. He served from February 21, 1870, to March 3, 1871. After serving in the Senate, he became the first president of the newly founded Alcorn College for Negroes in Mississippi.

Blanche Kelso Bruce (1841–1898) was Mississippi’s second black in the U.S. Senate. He took his seat in 1875 and was the only black senator elected to serve a full term, until the mid-twentieth century. In 1878 he became the first black to preside over the Senate. President Ulysses S. Grant appointed him register of the treasury in 1881. Born a slave in Virginia, Bruce was educated at Oberlin College. He became a wealthy Mississippi farmer and a successful banker.


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