19th Century Black Congress Member Biographies
Blanche K. Bruce (March 1, 1841 – March 17, 1898)
Blanche Bruce, who escaped slavery at the outset of the Civil War, was a Mississippi Senator from 1875 to 1881 (44th–46th Congresses). He was the first African American to serve a full term in the Senate. During a debate on the Chinese exclusion bill, which he opposed, Bruce also became the first African American to preside over a session of the Senate. Bruce called for desegregation of the Army and for better treatment of American Indians. He chaired the Senate Select Committee to Investigate the Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company (Freedman’s Bank) and served on a select committee for improving navigation on the Mississippi River. He was also a member of the Manufactures, Education and Labor, and Pensions committees. Bruce married Josephine Willson of Cleveland, Ohio, in 1878, and they had one child, Roscoe Conkling. Roscoe was name for Senator Roscoe Conkling of New York who had escorted Bruce to be sworn in as a senator after the senior Mississippi senator refused to do so. Bruce went on to become an academic administrator at Tuskegee Institute and for the Washington, D.C. colored schools.
Richard H. Cain (April 12, 1825 – January 18, 1887)
Richard Cain represented South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1873 to 1875 and from 1877 to 1879 (43rd and 45th Congresses). He spoke in Congress on behalf of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, which outlawed segregation but was later overturned. Cain also introduced a bill to use proceeds from public land sales to support southern schools serving both African American and white children. He served on the Agriculture and Private Land Claims committees. Cain supported black emigration to Liberia and, as a leader of the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church, was responsible for the establishment of churches throughout South Carolina. Cain was born in Virginia to an African-born father and a Cherokee mother. In 1831, the family moved to Ohio, where he went to school and worked on steamboats along the Ohio River. He later attended Wilberforce University for a year.
Henry P. Cheatham (December 27, 1857 – November 29, 1935)
Henry P. Cheatham represented North Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1889 to 1893 (51st and 52nd Congresses) and was a member of the House Expenditures on Public Buildings and Agriculture committees. Born a slave, Cheatham attended public schools and earned a masters degree from Shaw University in 1887. That same year he helped found the North Carolina Colored Orphanage at Oxford, where he later served as superintendent from 1907 until his death. An advocate for recognition of black contributions to American life, Cheatham requested Congress appropriate money for an exhibit of Black arts, crafts, and industrial and agricultural products and to establish a bi-racial panel to assess the education, financial, and social progress of black Americans. The House failed to adopt both these proposals. Cheatham also was unsuccessful in securing funding to reimburse depositors of the Freedmen’s Bank and to honor Robert Smalls and the crew of the Planter for their service during the Civil War. He served as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions in 1892 and 1900. In 1892, Cheatham lost his reelection bid and two years later lost the nomination to his brother-in-law, George H. White. He also served as the president of the Negro Association of North Carolina.
Robert C. DeLarge (March 15, 1842 – February 14, 1874)
Robert De Large, was born in slavery and later served in the House as a representative of South Carolina from 1871 to 1873 (42nd Congress), serving on the Manufactures committee. After he took office the district’s former Democratic representative contested the election and De Large lost his seat two months prior to serving a full term. During his brief tenure in Congress, De Large called for greater protection of African Americans from white supremacist groups. De Large was not formally educated beyond high school. Shortly after leaving Congress, he died of consumption at the age of thirty-one.
Robert B. Elliott (August 11, 1842 – August 9, 1884)
Robert Elliott represented South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1871 to 1874 (42nd–43rd Congresses), when he resigned to become Speaker of the South Carolina House of Representatives. Born in Liverpool, England, Elliott was a popular and hard-working political organizer. As a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention in 1868, he defeated the imposition of poll taxes and literacy tests that would prevent Blacks from voting. He later distinguished himself in Congress with major speeches on behalf of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 and the Civil Rights Act of 1875. In 1872, Elliott was re-elected to the House of Representatives with 93 percent of his district’s vote. He served on the Education and Labor and Militia committees. Born of West Indian parents, Elliott graduated from Eton College in England, and was trained as a typesetter. He also served in the British navy. Upon arrival in the United States, he became the associate editor of the South Carolina Leader, a newspaper edited by future Congressman Richard Cain. He also studied law and established his own practice.
Jeremiah Haralson (April 1, 1846 – 1916)
Jeremiah Haralson, enslaved until 1865, was one of three African Americans from Alabama who served in Congress during Reconstruction. He was known for being a powerful orator. While serving in the U.S. House of Representatives, Haralson supported amnesty for former Confederates and opposed the use of federal troops to quell violence in the South during the presidential election of 1876. He served just one term, from 1875 to 1877 (44th Congress), and was assigned to the Public Expenditures committee. Haralson ran for re-election in a majority Black district, but was unsuccessful as a white Democratic candidate won the election. Haralson taught himself to read and write and was a farmer and a minister prior to entering politics.
John A. Hyman (July 23, 1840 – September 14, 1891)
John Hyman, enslaved until 1865, was the first African American to represent North Carolina in Congress, serving from 1875 to 1877 (44th Congress) in the U.S. House of Representatives. He served on the Manufactures committee. Hyman became active in politics in his twenties, and served in North Carolina’s State Senate for six years prior to his election to the U.S. House of Representatives. Although he introduced a number of bills on behalf of his constituents, none made it past the committee stage. In his early twenties, Hyman worked for a jeweler who taught him to read and write, and he received an elementary education after emancipation in 1865.
John M. Langston (December 14, 1829 – November 15, 1897)
John Langston was the first African American to represent Virginia in Congress. He served one term (1890-1891) after successfully contesting the election of another candidate to the 51st Congress. As a member of the Education committee, Langston tried to establish a national industrial university for African Americans, and attempted to appoint black applicants to United States Naval Academy. Langston received bachelors and masters degrees from Oberlin College and studied law in Ohio. He was inspector general of the Freedmen’s Bureau, held political posts in Haiti and Santo Domingo, and served as Howard University’s vice president and acting president. He also founded Howard’s law school and served as its dean from 1868–1875. He published his autobiography, From the Virginia Plantation to the National Capitol, in 1894.
Jefferson F. Long (March 3, 1836 – February 5, 1900)
Jefferson Long, a former slave, was the first black representative of Georgia and the only African American to represent Georgia during Reconstruction. He served for just one session of the 41st Congress (December 1870 – March 1871), but distinguished himself by being the first black representative to address the House. He gave a speech in opposition to a bill that would modify the oath required of former Confederates, allowing them to qualify for public office.
John R. Lynch (September 10, 1847 – November 2, 1939)
John Lynch was the first African American member of the House of Representatives from Mississippi, and the youngest member of the 43rd Congress. He served from 1873 to 1877 and again from 1882 to 1883 (43rd–44th and 47th Congresses), and was assigned to the Mines and Mining, Education and Labor, and Militia committees. Lynch was a strong advocate for the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. Beginning in 1972, Lynch was a delegate to all but one Republican National Convention over a period of twenty-eight years. Lynch was also the first African American to deliver the keynote address at either a Republican or Democratic national convention. The last black Congressman from Mississippi until 1987, he had been enslaved until the Union Army freed him in 1864. Lynch is the author of The Facts of Reconstruction (1913) and Reminisces of an Active Life, which he completed in the late 1930’s, but was not published until 1970.
Thomas E. Miller (June 17, 1849 – April 8, 1936)
After successfully contesting another candidate’s election, Thomas Miller represented South Carolina in the House of Representatives from September 1890 to March 1891 (51st Congress). He was assigned to the Library of Congress committee. Despite serving in Congress for only five months, Miller gave at least two important speeches on the floor, one supporting federal oversight of elections and protection of voters, and another defending African Americans from blame for the South’s economic problems. Miller and John R. Lynch were the last surviving black representatives of the 19th century.
George W. Murray (September 22, 1853 – April 21, 1926)
George Murray represented South Carolina from1893 to 1895 and, after successfully contesting the election of William Elliott, from 1896 to 1897 (53rd–54th Congresses). He served on the Expenditures in the Treasury and Education committees. Murray fought for federal protection of voting rights in the South and advocated for the recognition of African American contributions to the nation’s economic progress. Murray was the author of two books, Race Ideals: Effects, Cause and Remedy for the Afro-American Race Troubles (1914) and Light in Dark Places (1925).
Charles E. Nash (May 23, 1844 – June 21, 1913)
Charles Nash, a former sergeant for the Union army, was the first African American to represent Louisiana in Congress. He served in the 44th Congress, from 1875 to 1877. Nash spoke on the House floor in support of enforcing laws to protect freedmen and urged the establishment of public schools in the South. He served on the Education and Labor committee.
James E. O’Hara (February 26, 1844 – September 15, 1905)
James O’Hara was the second African American to represent North Carolina in Congress, serving from 1883 to 1887 (48th–49th Congresses). Until the arrival of Robert Smalls in March 1844, O’Hara was the only Black Congressman at that time. He served on the Mines and Mining, Expenditures on Public Buildings, and Invalid Pensions committees. O’Hara unsuccessfully proposed a civil rights amendment to the Constitution; reimbursement of depositors in the failed Freedman’s Bank; amending an interstate commerce bill to prevent segregation of railroad passengers; and investigating the 1886 attack on a Carrollton, Mississippi courthouse which resulted in the death of twenty-three African Americans. O’Hara also supported equal pay for male and female teachers. He was the first African American admitted to the North Carolina Bar.
Joseph H. Rainey (June 21, 1832 – August 2, 1887)
Joseph Rainey, born in slavery, was the first black member of the House of Representatives and the first black representative from South Carolina. He served from 1870 to 1879 (42nd–45th Congresses), and was an advocate for the 1871 Ku Klux Act and the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Rainey was assigned to the Freedmen’s Affairs, Indian Affairs, and Invalid Pensions committees as well as two select committees. He became the first African American to preside over a session in the House of Representatives when he took over for the Speaker of the House during a debate on an Indian appropriation bill in 1874.
Alonzo J. Ransier (January 3, 1834 – August 17, 1882)
Alonzo Ransier represented South Carolina in the House of Representatives for one term in 1873–1875 (43rd Congress). He served on the Manufactures committee. Although an outspoken advocate for the passage of the 1875 Civil Rights Act, he abstained from voting on the bill because it failed to address the segregation of public schools.
James T. Rapier (November 13, 1837 – May 31, 1883)
James Rapier was one of three black Congressmen from Alabama during Reconstruction. He served for one term in 1873–1875 (43rd Congress), and was assigned to the Education and Labor committee. Rapier proposed the establishment of an office to help blacks acquire land in the West and the allocation of $5 million for public schools in the South. He secured the passage of a bill to make Alabama’s capital a federal port of delivery, and asked Congress to provide greater financial oversight of southern land grant colleges.
Hiram R. Revels (November 13, 1827 – January 16, 1901)
In February 1870, Hiram Revels became the first African American to serve in Congress when he filled the seat of former Mississippi senator and Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Revels served for the remainder of the 41st Congress, which adjourned in March 1871, and was assigned to the Education and Labor and District of Columbia committees. Revels was not an outspoken advocate for racial equality, but opposed an amendment to keep schools segregated in Washington, D.C. and assisted black mechanics prohibited from working at the Washington Navy Yard because of their racial identity.
Robert Smalls (April 5, 1839 – February 22, 1915)
Robert Smalls represented South Carolina in the House of Representatives from 1875 to 1879 and from 1882 to 1883 (44th–45th and 47th–49th Congresses). Smalls was enslaved until May 1862, when he piloted a Confederate army ship into Union waters. He soon became active in politics and by the 1870’s, was a powerful leader in South Carolina. Smalls fought segregation in the military, railroads, and Washington, D.C. eating establishments, and opposed African American emigration to the western United States and Liberia. He served on the Agriculture, Militia, Manufactures, and War Claims committees.
Benjamin S. Turner (March 17, 1825 – March 21, 1894)
Benjamin Turner, the first African American Congressman from Alabama, served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 1871 to 1873 (42nd Congress). While enslaved, Turner had managed a hotel and stable, and by 1870 had accumulated enough wealth to establish a school for black children. Turner sponsored a bill requiring the federal government to purchase southern land and sell tracts to freedmen. As a member of the Invalid Pensions committee, he helped pass two bills authorizing payments for Civil War veterans.
Josiah T. Walls (December 30, 1842 – May 5, 1905)
Josiah Walls was the first black Congressman from Florida. He served from 1871 to 1875 and from 1875 to 1876 (42nd Congress, part of the 43rd Congress and a portion of the 44th Congress). He was twice unseated by opponents who claimed he had been elected unfairly. Walls was born in slavery and was a servant in the Confederate army until his regiment was captured by Union troops. Walls was later elected to fill Florida’s single seat in the House of Representatives, where he became a strong advocate for improvements within his state. He also supported a national fund for education, and proposed the nomination of future black Congressman John Mercer Langston to serve as vice president of the United States. Walls served on the Militia, Mileage, and Expenditures in the Navy Department committees.
George H. White (December 18, 1852 – December 28, 1918)
George White, enslaved until the age of 10, was the last African American to serve in Congress until 1928. He represented North Carolina from 1897 to 1901 (55th–56th Congresses), serving on the Agriculture and District of Columbia committees. In 1900, White introduced first bill to make lynching a federal crime punishable by death. He also called for reducing Congressional representation of states where Blacks were unable to vote. During his earlier service in North Carolina’s House and Senate, White was a strong advocate for public education in the South. After leaving Congress, he founded an all-black town in New Jersey and established a bank to serve African American entrepreneurs and homebuyers.