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African Americans in the United States Congress

Joseph Rainey, first black member of the US House of Representatives

Since 1870 there have been 106 African American members of the United States Congress. This figure includes four non-voting members of the House of Representatives, representing the District of Columbia and the U.S. Virgin Islands.

Table of contents
1 History of African American representation
2 List of African Americans in the United States Congress
3 See Also

History of African American representation

The right of African Americans to vote and to serve in the United States Congress was established after the Civil War by the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments to the Constitution. The Thirteenth Amendment (ratified December 6, 1865), abolished slavery. The Fourteenth Amendment (ratified July 9, 1868) made all those born or naturalized in the United States citizens. The Fifteenth Amendment (ratified February 3, 1870) forbade the denial or abridgement of the right to vote, and gave Congress the power to enforce the law by appropriate legislation.

In 1866 Congress passed the Civil Rights Act and the Reconstruction Act, which dissolved all governments in the former Confederate states (except Tennessee) and divided the South into five military districts to protect the rights of the newly freed blacks. The act required that the ex-Confederate states ratify constitutions conferring citizenship rights on blacks or forfeit their representation in Congress.

As a result of these measures, blacks acquired the right to vote across the Southern states. In several states (notably Mississippi and South Carolina) blacks were the majority of the population, and were able, in coalition with pro-Union whites, to take control of the state legislatures, which at that time elected members of the United States Senate. In practice, however, only Mississippi elected black Senators. On February 25, 1870, Hiram R. Revels became the first black member of the Senate.

Blacks were a majority of the population in many Congressional districts across the South. In 1870 Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina became the first black member of the United States House of Representatives. Blacks were also elected from Alabama, Florida, Georgia, Mississippi, North Carolina and Virginia.

All of these Reconstruction era black Senators and Representatives were Republicans. The Republicans were the party of Abraham Lincoln and of the Emancipation Proclamation, while the Democrats were the party of slavery and secession. Until 1876 the Republicans made genuine efforts to ensure that southern blacks were able to vote.

After the deal with the southern states that secured the election of Rutherford B. Hayes in 1876, however, Republican interest in southern blacks faded, and the white Democrats gradually regained control of the Southern legislatures and restricted the rights of blacks to vote. The last black Congressman elected from the South was George W. White of North Carolina, elected in 1897. After his term expired in 1901, there were no blacks in the Congress for 28 years.

The migration of blacks from the South to northern cities such as New York and Chicago in the 1920s and 1930s began to produce black-majority Congressional districts. In 1928 Oscar DePriest won the 1st Congressional District of Illinois (the South Side of Chicago) as a Republican, becoming the first black Congressman of the modern era.

DePriest was defeated by a Democrat in 1934: he was the last black Republican in the House for 56 years. The election of Franklin D. Roosevelt in 1932 led a shift of black voting loyalties from Republican to Democrat as the Democrats became the party of economic advancement and (some time later) civil rights for black Americans. By the 1960s virtually all black voters were Democrats. Two black Republicans have been elected since 1991, but both from white-majority districts.

Until 1992 most black House members were elected from inner-city districts in the North and West: Baltimore, Chicago, Cleveland, Detroit, Los Angeles, New York City, Newark, New Jersey, Philadelphia and St. Louis all elected at least one black member. The only southern cities to have black majority districts were Atlanta, Houston, Memphis and New Orleans. The only Southern rural area to have a black majority district was the Mississippi Delta area in Mississippi.

At the redistricting following the 1990 census, however, southern states were required by a series of court decisions to create districts with black majorities. This was done by a process of gerrymandering, often creating grotesquely-shaped districts to link widely separated black communities. In this way black members were elected from Alabama, Florida, rural Georgia, rural Louisiana, North Carolina, South Carolina and Virginia for the first time since Reconstruction. Additional black majority districts were also created in this way in California, Maryland and Texas. This greatly increased the number of black-majority districts.

This process was naturally supported by black Democrats, but it was also supported by Republicans, since the process of segregating black voters into black majority districts required removing black voters from all the other districts, making them easier for Republicans to win. It also had the effect of making the Democratic Party more clearly "black" in Southern states, thus further alienating white voters. By 2000 most white-majority House districts in the South were held by Republicans.

Since no state has had a black majority since the 1940s, blacks can only be elected to the United States Senate with the assistance of white voters. Two African Americans have been elected to the Senate in the modern era: Edward W. Brooke, a liberal Republican from Massachusetts, and Carol Moseley-Braun, a Democrat from Illinois.

List of African Americans in the United States Congress

United States Senate

In the Reconstruction era

In the modern era

United States House of Representatives

In the Reconstruction era

In the modern era

Non-voting members

See Also