There is a wealth of information on the Internet about African-Americans in politics during Reconstruction. Entire books have been written about it. A part of it is an effort to rebut images of the black politicians during the Reconstruction era as lazy, corrupt and ignorant, as portrayed in “Birth of a Nation” and “Gone with the Wind”. Another reason for chronicling the period and the individuals is because, frankly, it’s fascinating.
Before the Civil War began, African Americans had only been able to vote in a few northern states, and there were virtually no black officeholders. The months after the Union victory in April 1865 saw extensive mobilization within the black community, with meetings, parades and petitions calling for legal and political rights, including the all-important right to vote.
During the first two years of Reconstruction, blacks organized Equal Rights Leagues throughout the South African Americans in South Carolina had been organizing politically longer than those living in most other states, and many blacks were elected to early state conventions there. In Norfolk, VA on April 4, 1865, the Colored Monitor Union Club was established to obtain all the rights of citizenship, including “the right of universal suffrage to all loyal men, without distinction of color, and to memorialize the Congress of the United States to allow the colored citizens the equal right of franchise with other citizens.” The men met again later in April and several times in May. At the same time, African Americans were organizing in other communities. Hampton, VA residents founded a Union League in March, and Williamsburg, VA residents founded a Colored Union League in May. In Richmond, VA on May 9, 1865, community leaders created the Colored Men’s Equal Rights League of Richmond, an affiliate of the National Equal Rights League that had been founded in 1864. “The objects of this League,” the organizers of the Richmond chapter proclaimed, “are to encourage sound morality, education, temperance, frugality, industry, and promote everything that pertains to a well-ordered and dignified life, and to obtain by appeals to the minds and consciences of the American people, or by legal process when possible, a recognition of the rights of the colored people of the Nation as American citizens.”
African American activists bitterly opposed the Reconstruction policies of President Andrew Johnson, which excluded blacks from southern politics and allowed state legislatures to pass restrictive “black codes” regulating the lives of the freed men and women. Fierce resistance to these discriminatory laws, as well as growing opposition to Johnson’s policies in the North, led to a Republican victory in the U.S. congressional elections of 1866 and to a new phase of Reconstruction that would give African Americans a more active role in the political, economic and social life of the South.
In 1867, Congress passed a law requiring the former Confederate states to include black male suffrage in their new state constitutions. Ironically, even though African American men began voting in the South after 1867, the majority of Northern states continued to deny them this basic right.
As more African Americans were allowed to participate in American political life, organizations like the growing Union League supported black political activism in the South. Beginning in 1867, blacks took part in state constitutional conventions for the first time and comprised the vast majority of Republican voters in the South.
In Virginia, the first election in which black men voted and those votes were counted was for delegates to the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868, to which they elected two dozen of their own. Beginning in 1869, African Americans began to be elected to the General Assembly, mostly as Republicans and later as members of the biracial Readjuster Party. Some black politicians were more radical than others, but they generally advocated black civil rights, access to free public schools, and a refinancing of the state’s large antebellum debt.
In July 1867 twenty whites and 150 blacks attended a Republican convention in Houston, TX where they endorsed free common schools and free homesteads from public lands for blacks and whites alike. Thus began a decades-long tradition of black Republicanism in the state. many black men registered for the first election in which they could participate-the 1868 referendum on whether to hold another constitutional convention and elect delegates. More blacks than whites cast ballots, and, with their white allies, they overcame the opposition of the majority of white voters and voted to hold another convention. The Convention of 1868–69qv, dominated by Republicans, included ten African-American delegates out of ninety. All ten were active on committees and presented important resolutions. Though frustrated in attempts to secure certain constitutional safeguards for their people, they contributed to the accomplishments of the convention, which paved the way for the readmission of Texas to the Union in March 1870.
However, in the North, the Republican’s once-huge voter majority over the Democratic Party was declining. Radical Republican leaders feared that they might lose control of Congress to the Democrats.
One solution to this problem called for including the black man’s vote in all Northern states.
Republicans assumed the new black voters would vote Republican just as their brothers were doing in the South. By increasing its voters in the North and South, the Republican Party could then maintain its stronghold in Congress.
The Republicans, however, faced an incredible dilemma. The idea of blacks voting was not popular in the North. In fact, several Northern states had recently voted against black male suffrage.
In May 1868, the Republicans held their presidential nominating convention in Chicago and chose Ulysses S. Grant as their candidate. The Republicans agreed that African-American male suffrage continued to be a requirement for the Southern states, but decided that the Northern states should settle this issue for themselves.
Grant was victorious in the election of 1868, but this popular general won by a surprisingly slim margin. It was clear to Republican leaders that if they were to remain in power, their party needed the votes of black men in the North.
When the new year began in 1869, the Republicans were ready to introduce a constitutional amendment guaranteeing the black man’s right to vote. For two months, Congress considered the proposed amendment. Several versions of the amendment were submitted, debated, rejected and then reconsidered in both the House and Senate.
Finally, at the end of February 1869, Congress approved a compromise amendment that did not even specifically mention the black man:
Section 1: The right of citizens of the United States vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.
Section 2: The Congress shall have the power to enforce this article by appropriate legislation.
In a speech before the Massachusetts AntiSlavery Society, Frederick Douglass explained why the black man wanted the right to vote “in every state of the Union”:
It is said that we are ignorant; admit it. But if we know enough to be hung, we know enough to vote. If the Negro knows enough to pay taxes to support government, he knows enough to vote; taxation and representation should go together. If he knows enough to shoulder a musket and fight for the flag for the government, he knows enough to vote ….What I ask for the Negro is not benevolence, not pity, not sympathy, but simply justice.
While Congress debated the 15th Amendment early in 1869, 150 black men from 17 states assembled for a convention in Washington, D.C. This was the first national meeting of black Americans in the history of the United States. Frederick Douglass was elected president of the convention.
On March 30, President Grant officially proclaimed the 15th Amendment as part of the Constitution. Washington and many other American cities celebrated. More than 10,000 blacks paraded through Baltimore. In a speech on May 5, 1870, Frederick Douglass rejoiced. “What a country — fortunate in its institutions, in its 15th Amendment, in its future.”
During Reconstruction, about 2,000 African American men served in political office. Hundreds of blacks held local offices in the South, more than 600 were elected to state legislatures, and 16 served in Congress, 2 in the Senate and 14 in the House of Representatives.
So long as whites remained divided, the black electoral minority capitalized on cleavages to maintain their political influence and shape urban politics. Many African-American communities practiced politics in a system characterized by segregation and white supremacy. Political influence was hard-won through pragmatic activism that mandated shifting alliances among different groups of blacks and whites. The local aspect of black enfranchisement which was more complex than either legislation or electoral results indicate at the national level.
At least 226 black Mississippians held public office during Reconstruction, compared to only 46 blacks in Arkansas and 20 in Tennessee. Mississippi sent the first two (and only) black senators of this period to Congress.
Between 1867 and 1895, nearly 100 black Virginians served in the two houses of the General Assembly or in the Constitutional Convention of 1867–1868.
South Carolina had the most elected officials – 315.South Carolina had the largest black population, at least in percentage terms—about 57 to 58 percent of the population of the state was African American in Reconstruction These 315 served in every kind of position—at the federal level, the state level, and the local level. Six black men served in Congress from South Carolina during Reconstruction. There were also U.S. tax assessors, pension agents, postmasters, customs officials. 210 African Americans served in the lower house of the state legislature and 29 in the state senate—a very hefty representation. And South Carolina is the only state that had a black majority in the legislature during Reconstruction. At the top of the state level, there were two black lieutenant governors, the treasurer, and secretary of state. Then there were numerous local officials ranging from justice of the peace, sheriff, and school board officials
Blacks made up the overwhelming majority of southern Republican voters, forming a coalition with “carpetbaggers” and “scalawags” (derogatory terms referring to recent arrivals from the North and southern white Republicans, respectively). A total of 265 African-American delegates were elected, more than 100 of whom had been born into slavery. Almost half of the elected black delegates served in South Carolina and Louisiana, where blacks had the longest history of political organization; in most other states, African Americans were underrepresented compared to their population.
Many black leaders during Reconstruction had gained their freedom before the Civil War (by self-purchase or through the will of a deceased owner), had worked as skilled slave artisans or had served in the Union Army. A large number of black political leaders came from the church, having worked as ministers during slavery or in the early years of Reconstruction, when the church served as the center of the black community. The background of these men was typical of the leaders that emerged during Reconstruction, but differed greatly from that of the majority of the African American population.
Some ran for office as representatives of their race, others as exemplars of the ideal that, with the end of slavery and the advent of legal equality, race no longer mattered. Reconstruction’s black Congressmen did not see themselves simply as spokesmen for the black community. Blanche Bruce was one of the more conservative black leaders; yet in the Senate he spoke out for more humane treatment of Native Americans and opposed legislation banning immigration from China.
As the most radical aspect of the so-called Radical Reconstruction period, the political activism of the African American community also inspired the most hostility from Reconstruction’s opponents. Southern whites frustrated with policies giving former slaves the right to vote and hold office increasingly turned to intimidation and violence as a means of reaffirming white supremacy. A number of black Congressmen faced death threats and defended themselves by posting armed guards at their homes. Southern whites used many forms of intimidation to oppose black voters, politicians, policies, and rights. . The foremost of these organizations was the Ku Klux Klan. Established in Tennessee in 1866, the Klan became a violent paramilitary organization that often promoted planters’ interests and the Democratic Party. The Ku Klux Klan targeted local Republican leaders and blacks who challenged their white employers.. Klansmen hid beneath costumes meant to represent the ghosts of Confederate soldiers, but they often unmasked themselves when committing violence. This act sent a chilling message to their victims: Klansmen thought they could murder with impunity, because local authorities were unwilling or unable to stop them. For example, in Mississippi, courts, black churches, and schools became frequent targets of racial violence. In Meridian three black leaders were arrested in 1871 for making “incendiary” speeches. During the black men’s trial, Klansmen shot up the courtroom, killing the Republican judge and two defendants. The violence sparked a bloodbath in Meridian; white rioters picked out dozens of black leaders and murdered them in cold blood. In Vicksburg, MS white supremacists formed the White Man’s party, patrolled the streets with guns, and convinced black voters to stay home on election day. In Georgia, one quarter of the black legislators were killed, threatened, beaten, or jailed.
In 1876, when the election for president ended with a dispute over electoral votes, the Republicans made a deal with the Southern Democrats. First, the Southerners agreed to support Republican candidate Rutherford B. Hayes for president. In turn, the Republicans promised to withdraw troops from the South and abandon federal enforcement of black’s rights, including the right to vote.
Within a few years, the Southern state governments required blacks to pay voting taxes, pass literacy tests and endure many other unfair restrictions on their right to vote. In Mississippi, 67 percent of the black adult men were registered to vote in 1867; by 1892 only 4 percent were registered. The political deal to secure Hayes as president rendered the 15th Amendment meaningless. Another 75 years passed before black voting rights were again enforced in the South.
For many decades, historians viewed Reconstruction as the lowest point in the American experience, a time of corruption and misgovernment presided over by unscrupulous carpetbaggers from the North, ignorant former slaves and traitorous scalawags (white Southerners who supported the new governments in the South).
To the critics of Reconstruction, the fact that black men were in office was one of the great horrors of that period. The Democratic press called these legislatures and constitutional conventions “menageries” and “monkey houses.” They ridiculed former slaves who thought themselves competent to frame a code of laws. They said that these officials were ignorant, illiterate, propertyless,
Mythologies about black officeholders formed a central pillar of this outlook. Their alleged incompetence and venality illustrated the larger “crime” of Reconstruction–placing power in the hands of a race incapable of participating in American democracy. D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film Birth of a Nation included a scene in which South Carolina’s black legislators downed alcohol and propped their bare feet on their desks while enacting laws. Claude Bowers, in The Tragic Era, a bestseller of the 1920s that did much to form popular consciousness about Reconstruction, offered a similar portrait. To Griffith and Bowers, the incapacity of black officials justified the violence of the Ku Klux Klan and the eventual disenfranchisement of Southern black voters.
Historians have long since demolished this racist portrait of the era. Today Reconstruction is viewed as a noble if flawed experiment, a forerunner of the modern struggle for racial justice. If the era was tragic, it was not because Reconstruction was attempted but because the effort to construct an interracial democracy on the ruins of slavery failed.
The 14 Black members of the House of Representatives during Reconstruction were:
Joseph Rainey (R-SC)1870-1879.
Jefferson Long (R-GA) 1871
Robert Delaney (R-SC) 1871-1873
Robert Elliott (R-SC) 1871-1874
Benjamin Turner (R-AL) 1871-1873
Josiah Walls (R-FL) 1871-1876
Richard Cain (R-SC) 1873-1879
John Lynch (R-MS) 1873-1877 & 1882-1883
Alonzo Ransier (R-SC) 1873-1875
James Rapier (R-AL) 1873-1875
Jeremiah Haralson (R-AL) 1875-1877
John Adams Hyman (R-NC) 1875-1877
Charles Nash (R-LA) 1875-1877
Robert Smalls (R-SC) 1875-79, 1882-83, 1884-87
Joseph Rainey (R-SC)1870-1879.
Born into slavery, his father Edward Rainey, a barber by trade, used his earnings to buy his family’s freedom. The Confederate Army called Rainey to service when the Civil War broke out in 1861. In 1862, Rainey and his wife escaped to Bermuda. Rainey returned to Charleston in 1866. The wealth Rainey acquired in Bermuda elevated his status in the community, and he was looked upon as a leader; he soon became active in the Republican Party. in 1870 he won a seat in the state senate, where he immediately became chairman of the finance committee. In February 1870, the Republican Party nominated Rainey for the remainder of Whittemore’s term in the 41st Congress (1869–1871) and for a full term in the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). On October 19, 1870, Rainey won the full term, topping Democrat C. W. Dudley by a substantial majority (63 percent). On November 8, he defeated Dudley once again, garnering more than 86 percent of the vote, in a special election to fill the seat for the remainder of the 41st Congress.5
Joseph Rainey was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first African American to preside over the House, and the longest–serving African American during the tumultuous Reconstruction period. While Rainey’s representation—like that of the other 21 black Representatives of the era—was symbolic, he also demonstrated the political nuance of a seasoned, substantive Representative, balancing his defense of southern blacks’ civil rights by extending amnesty to the defeated Confederates.
Rainey advocated for his constituents—both black and white. He used his growing political clout to influence the South Carolina state legislature to retain the customs duty on rice, the chief export of the district and the state. He also submitted a petition to improve Charleston Harbor and fought against an appropriations cut for Fort Moultrie and Fort Sumter in Charleston. However, Rainey’s committee appointments and policies reflected his desire to defend black civil rights, and his loyalty to the Republican Party. Rainey received seats on three standing committees: Freedmen’s Affairs (41st–43rd Congresses), Indian Affairs (43rd Congress), and Invalid Pensions (44th–45th Congresses, 1875–1879). He also served on several select committees, including the Select Committee on the Centennial Celebration and the Proposed National Census of 1875 (44th Congress) and the Committee on the Freedmen’s Bank (44th Congress).
Rainey’s work on the Committee on Freedmen’s Affairs—created in 1865 to handle all legislation concerning newly freed slaves—earned him the most recognition.6 On April 1, 1871, he delivered his first major speech, arguing for the use of federal troops to protect southern blacks from the recently organized Ku Klux Klan. Enumerating the dangers of returning home to South Carolina on congressional breaks, exposing himself to violence by the Red Shirts—a virulent South Carolina white supremacist organization—Rainey said, “When myself and my colleagues shall leave these Halls and turn our footsteps toward our southern homes, we know not that the assassin may await our coming, as marked for his vengeance.”7 The Ku Klux Klan Act was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on April 20, 1871, but the bill failed to stop Klan terrorism.8 After his speech, Rainey received a letter written in red ink instructing him and other advocates of black civil rights to “prepare to meet your God.”9 White southerners virtually ignored the Ku Klux Klan Act, and congressional opponents circumvented its provisions by eliminating funding. In March of 1872, Rainey found himself arguing for the federal appropriations needed to enforce the act.10
Jefferson Long (R-GA) 1871
Jefferson Long was born to a slave mother on March 3, 1836, in Knoxville, a small town in west–central Georgia. Long’s father was believed to have been the son of a local white man.3 Defying the law, Long learned to read and write. Trained as a tailor, he opened a successful business in Macon, Georgia, after his emancipation following the end of the Civil War. Most of his clients were white, as they were the only rural Georgians able to afford custom–made clothing His prosperous tailor shop catered to politically connected clients and provided him the resources to become involved in Republican politics. Starting in 1866, Long began promoting literacy among African Americans, and in 1867, he became active in the Georgia Educational Association, formed to protect and advance the interests of freedmen. Long also belonged to the Macon Union League, a grass–roots political action group. A dazzling orator, he introduced Georgian freedmen to politics by preaching the virtues of the Republican Party. While traveling the state, organizing local Republican branches, and encouraging black voters to register, Long brought many whites into the Republican fold.
Congress delayed Georgia’s re–entry into the Union because the state legislature refused to ratify the 14th Amendment, and white Republicans and Conservatives expelled 29 legally elected black members from the Georgia legislature in September 1868. Conditions for readmission included reseating the black members and ratification of the 15th Amendment. In July 1870, these terms were agreed to, and a Georgia delegation was permitted to return to Congress. A special election to fill the delegation’s seats for the remainder of the 41st Congress (1869–1871) was set for the same day—December 20, 1870—as the election for a full term to the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). The Georgia Republican Party chose black candidates to run for the abbreviated terms, reserving the full term for white candidates. In the state’s central district, the party nominated Long for the 41st Congress and state senator Thomas Jefferson Speer for the 42nd Congress. The night before the election, Long gave a series of speeches across the district, encouraging black voters to support the Republican ticket. The following day, he rallied a large number of blacks from Macon and marched with them to the polls. Armed whites were waiting, and a riot broke out. Long was unharmed, but four others were killed, and most blacks left the polls without voting. The unusual election lasted three days. White politicians accused blacks of voting multiple times and spread rumors that African Americans from South Carolina and Alabama had crossed state lines to vote. But despite the election’s inconsistencies, Long defeated his opponent, Democrat Winburn J. Lawton, garnering 12,867 votes (53 percent). However, he was not sworn in until January 16, 1871, because of complications related to Georgia’s readmission to the Union.7 Long took his seat one month after Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was seated in the House.
Long’s term was so short he was not assigned to any committees, yet he was determined to fight for the civil rights of freed slaves. On February 1, 1871, he became the first African–American Representative to speak before the House when he disagreed with a bill that exempted former Confederate politicians from swearing allegiance to the Constitution.8 Long argued against allowing unrepentant Confederates to return to Congress, noting that many belonged to secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan, which intimidated black citizens, and feigned loyalty to rebuild political strength. “If this House removes the disabilities of disloyal men,” Long warned, “I venture to prophesy you will again have trouble from the very same men who gave you trouble before.”9. “Do we, then, really propose here to–day … when loyal men dare not carry the ‘stars and stripes’ through our streets … to relieve from political disability the very men who have committed these Kuklux [sic] outrages?” he declared on the House Floor. “I think that I am doing my duty to my constituents and my duty to my country when I vote against such a proposition.”2 Many major newspapers reported on Long’s address, and northern newspapers, especially, commended his oratorical skills. Long was the last black Representative elected from Georgia until Representative Andrew Young won a seat in 1972.
Robert C. DeLarge (R-SC) 1871-1873
Robert Carlos De Large was born on March 15, 1842, in Aiken, South Carolina. Although some records indicate De Large was born a slave, he likely was the offspring of free mulatto parents. The De Large family owned slaves and, as members of the free mulatto elite, were afforded opportunities denied their darker–skinned neighbors. Robert De Large was educated at a North Carolina primary school and attended Wood High School in Charleston, South Carolina. He later married and had a daughter, Victoria.3
De Large was a tailor and a farmer before gaining lucrative employment with the Confederate Navy during the Civil War. Perhaps regretting the source of his financial windfall, De Large later donated most of his wartime earnings to the Republican Party.4 Nevertheless, by 1870 he had amassed a fortune that exceeded $6,500. He moved within Charleston’s highest circles and joined the Brown Fellowship Society, an exclusive organization for mullatos. After the war, De Large worked for the Republican state government as an agent in the Freedmen’s Bureau. He became an organizer for the South Carolina Republican Party, serving on important committees at several state conventions. He chaired the credentials committee at the 1865 Colored People’s Convention at Charleston’s Zion Church. In 1868, De Large won his first elected office, serving in the state house of representatives where he chaired the ways and means committee. In 1870, De Large set his sights on a congressional district representing Charleston and the southeastern portion of the state. He secured the Republican nomination over incumbent scalawag Christopher Bowen, a former Confederate soldier and one of Governor Scott’s most formidable political enemies De Large’s unvarnished comments on the House Floor about local party corruption caused him to run afoul of state Republicans. De Large participated sparingly in House Floor debate during the second session, as he was occupied defending his seat. The House Committee on Elections began consideration of Christopher Bowen’s challenge to his election in December 1871, and De Large took a leave of absence in April 1872 to prepare his defense. The rigors of defending his seat in the 42nd Congress took a toll on De Large’s fragile health and left him few options other than retirement. Black politician Alonzo Ransier won his seat. De Large returned to the state capital in Columbia and later moved to Charleston after Governor Scott appointed him magistrate of that city. He died of tuberculosis shortly thereafter on February 14, 1874, at the age of 31.
Robert Elliott (R-SC) 1871-1874
Robert Elliott was born on August 11, 1842, likely to West Indian parents in Liverpool, England.3 He received a public school education in England and learned a typesetter’s trade. Robert Elliott was intellectually gifted and well–educated. He often quoted classical literature and demonstrated facility with several languages. He quickly dove into Reconstruction–Era Republican politics in his new South Carolina home, emerging as a leading figure at the 1868 state constitutional convention. “Elliott knew the political condition of every nook and corner of the state. He knew every important person in every county, village, or town. He knew the history of the entire State as it related to politics.” Some think, said another newspaper, that “he is the ablest Negro intellectually in the South One of 78 black delegates at the convention, he advocated compulsory public education (although he opposed school integration) and helped defeat the imposition of a poll tax and a literacy test for voters.
Later in 1868, while serving as the only black member of the Barnwell County board of commissioners, Elliott was elected to the state house of representatives, where he remained until 1870. During his tenure in the state assembly, Elliott used his keen intelligence and ambition to study law and was admitted to the South Carolina bar in September 1868. In October 1870, Republicans in a west–central South Carolina congressional district nominated Robert Elliott to run for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. The district included the capital, Columbia, and had only a slight black majority. White colleagues received Elliott coolly. His dark skin came as a shock, as the two other African Americans on the floor, Joseph Rainey and Jefferson Long, were light–skinned mulattos. Described as the first “genuine African” in Congress, Elliott seemed to embody the new political opportunities—and southern white apprehensions—ushered in by emancipation. “I shall never forget [my first day in Congress],” Elliott later recalled. “I found myself the center of attraction. Everything was still.”8 Furthermore, his politics were more radical than his African–American colleagues’, and his unwavering stance for black civil rights made many Representatives of both parties wary of his intentions. Elliott was given a position on the Committee on Education and Labor, where he served during both of his terms.
Elliott’s efforts to enact legislation to weaken the Klan were more successful. In his April 1 speech, he read the letter posted by the Klansmen at the Union Courthouse jail, following it with words about the prejudice against his race: “It is custom, sir, of Democratic [newspapers] to stigmatize the negroes of the South as being in a semi–barbarous condition; but pray tell me, who is the barbarian here, the murderer or the victim? I fling back in the teeth of those who make it this most false and foul aspersion upon the negro of the southern States.”10 The Third Ku Klux Klan Bill, which reinforced freedmen’s voting rights, passed and was signed into law three weeks later. The following October, President Ulysses S. Grant used the powers granted him by the bill to suspend habeas corpus in nine southern states, facilitating the prosecution of Klansmen.
During his second term, Elliott worked to help pass Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s Civil Rights Bill, to eliminate discrimination from public transportation, public accommodations, and schools. Elliott gained national attention for a speech rebuffing opponents of the bill, who argued that federal enforcement of civil rights was unconstitutional. Responding to former Confederate Vice President Alexander Stephens of Georgia, who had been re–elected to the House, Elliott reaffirmed his belief in the right and duty of Congress to legislate against discrimination.
Benjamin Turner (R-AL) 1871-1873
Benjamin Sterling Turner, was born on March 17, 1825 in Weldon, North Carolina. He was raised as a slave and as a child received no formal education. In 1830 Turner moved to Selma, Alabama with his mother and slave owner. While living on the plantation he surreptitiously obtained an education and by age 20 Turner was able to read and write fluently.
While still a slave Turner managed a hotel and stable in Selma. Although his owner received most of the money for Turner’s work, he managed to save some of his earnings and shortly after the Civil War he used the savings he had accumulated to purchase the property. The U.S. Census of 1870 reported Turner as owning $2,500 in real estate and $10,000 in personal property, making him one of the wealthiest freedmen in Alabama.
Turner also became a teacher in 1865 and helped establish the first school for African American children. Two years later he became involved in politics. After participating in the Republican State Convention in 1867, Turner was named tax collector of Dallas County. The following year he won his first elective office when he became a Selma City Councilman. In 1870 Turner was elected to the United States Congress as the first African American Representative in Alabama history.
While in office Turner proposed bills that contributed funding for Civil War-related damages to several federal buildings in central Alabama and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church. Turner was also appointed to the House Committee on Invalid Pensions and was responsible for issuing pensions to Union war veterans. Through his influence African American veterans received a pension of eight dollars a month.
Josiah Walls (R-FL) 1871-1876
Josiah T. Walls was born a slave in Winchester, Virginia on December 30, 1842. He was conscripted by the Confederate Army and captured in Yorktown by Union forces in 1862. Walls then enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops Infantry Regiment in 1863 where he rose in rank to First Sergeant.
After leaving the U.S. Army, Walls settled in Alachua County, Florida and became active in local politics. After passage of the U.S. Military Reconstruction Act of 1867, Walls joined the newly formed Republican Party in Florida.
Walls’s six year tenure as a U.S. Congressman was filled with controversy. He was the only black representative unseated three times by opponents challenging his elections in 1870, 1872, and 1874 including J.J. Finley, a former Confederate General. Despite these disputed elections, Walls compiled a legislative record which included introducing bills favoring land grants to railroads and securing connections to ports servicing Cuba and the West Indies. Walls also submitted measures to reinforce the Civil Rights Act of 1866. After serving in Congress he returned to the Florida State legislature and resumed farming on his 175 acre plantation near Gainesville, Florida he had acquired in 1873. Walls also purchased a newspaper, The New Era. Walls remained active in politics serving at various times as mayor of Gainesville, a member of the County Board of Public Instruction and County Commissioner.
Richard Cain (R-SC) 1873-1879
Richard Harvey Cain was born a free black in Greenbrier County, Virginia on April 12, 1825. In 1831 his parents moved to Gallipolis, Ohio where he attended school. Seventeen years later, in 1848, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church and became a minister in Muscatine, Iowa. Cain moved to South Carolina in 1865 to lead a Charleston AME church and soon became involved in local politics. In 1868, he was elected a member of the South Carolina State Constitutional Convention. Later in the year he was elected to the South Carolina State Senate, a post he held until 1870.
In 1872, Richard Harvey Cain was elected to South Carolina’s at large seat in the U.S. House of Representatives. Cain served on the Agriculture Committee in the 43rd Congress. He is most remembered, however, for his support of a civil rights bill introduced into the House in 1870. Although the bill failed to be enacted, during the debate he spoke eloquently and passionately about his own experiences during a trip to the nation’s capital where he was denied first class accommodations on a train. By 1874, Cain’s at large seat was eliminated and he chose not so seek another office that year. He continued, however, to be actively involved in the South Carolina Republican Party and in 1876 he returned to Congress representing the 2nd district of South Carolina. Cain served one term and then returned to his ministerial duties in Charleston. In 1880 Cain was elected a Bishop in the A.M.E. Church. Soon afterwards he moved to Texas and became one of the founders of Paul Quinn College in Austin.
John Lynch (R-MS) 1873-1877 & 1882-1883
John Roy Lynch was born in Concordia Parish, Louisiana on September 10, 1847 to Patrick Lynch, an Irish immigrant and Catherine White, a slave. Lynch’s father died soon after his birth. Lynch and his mother were then traded to a plantation in Natchez, Mississippi. During the Civil War, Lynch became free when he fled the plantation and to serve as a cook for the 49th Illinois Volunteer Regiment.
During Reconstruction, Lynch joined the Republican Party in Mississippi. After working as assistant secretary for the Republican State Convention, Lynch became the Justice of the Peace in Natchez County, Mississippi. In November 1869 at the age of 22, Lynch was elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. Three years later, in 1872 he was named Speaker of the House.
Later in 1872, Lynch ran for a seat in the United States House of Representatives. He was elected, winning more than fifty percent of the popular vote. In Congress Lynch was known primarily for his support of a civil rights measure that eventually became the Civil Rights Act of 1875. During his congressional campaign in 1874, Lynch voiced concern for racist white Democrats attacks on black Republicans in Mississippi, a prelude to the bloody Mississippi gubernatorial campaign of 1875 where hundreds of black and white Republicans were killed. Despite those violent tactics which reduced the Republican vote in the state, Lynch managed to be re-elected to Congress in 1874 and 1876. During his third term, however, he was increasingly isolated from the state’s other political leaders, virtually all of whom were white Democrats. Despite intense opposition from Democrats, Lynch was reelected in 1880. Because the Democrats disputed the election, he fought for over a year (half his term) before Congress finally seated him. During his remaining year in Congress, he continued to support civil rights legislation.
Alonzo Ransier (R-SC) 1873-1875
Alonzo Jacob Ransier was born a free black man in Charleston in 1834. Little is known of his childhood and early education. At the end of the Civil War he worked as a shipping clerk. In 1865, at the age of 31, he was appointed state registrar of elections. The following year, 1866, Ransier attended South Carolina’s first Republican convention and two years later was elected to the Constitutional Convention which established the state’s first racially integrated government. Ransier served in that government when he was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives in 1868. In 1870 Ransier was elected Lieutenant Governor of South Carolina. 6 His position afforded him an opportunity to preside over the state senate as well as the Southern States Convention in Columbia in 1871 Ransier’s tenure in South Carolina’s executive government was remarkable for his honesty in a notoriously corrupt administration.7 Ransier was a delegate at the 1872 Republican National Convention in Philadelphia. That same year he was elected to the Forty-Third United States Congress from the 2nd Congressional District.
Ransier was actively committed to the cause of equality for the African American citizens of South Carolina and the nation. While in Congress he fought for a civil rights bill, supported strong tariff laws, opposed arbitrary salary increases for federal officials, advocated term limits for politicians and petitioned for funds to improve the maintenance of Charleston harbor.
James Rapier (R-AL) 1873-1875
James Thomas Rapier was born on November 13, 1837 in Florence, Alabama and attended high school in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1856 at the age of 19 he traveled to attend the King School in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, an experimental black community. There, along with his education, he experienced a religious conversion and decided to devote his life to helping southern blacks. Rapier also attended the University of Glasgow and Franklin College in Nashville before receiving a teaching certificate in 1863.
Rapier moved to Maury County, Tennessee and in 1865 started campaigning for African American suffrage. He delivered the keynote address at the Tennessee Negro Suffrage Convention in Nashville that same year. When the movement saw no success he took up cotton farming in his home town of Florence, Alabama and became successful.
After the U.S. Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, Rapier was elected a delegate to the first Republican state convention in Montgomery, Alabama and helped draft the Party’s platform. Rapier adopted a moderate political stance, which earned him respect from many Republicans. To some white southern Democrats, however, his engagement in politics at all was considered unacceptable. In 1868 Rapier was driven from his home by the Ku Klux Klan and remained in seclusion for almost a year.
In 1872 Rapier became the Republican Party nominee for Congress from northern Alabama, and after an intense campaign, won a huge victory. While in Congress he pushed through a bill to make Montgomery a port of delivery (which turned out to be an enormous boost for the city’s economy), and supported civil rights, education, and anti-violence legislation as well as the 1875 Civil Rights Law.
Democrats, however, regained control of the state and Rapier was defeated in his 1874 reelection bid. He ran again in 1876 but lost. Rapier remained active in politics after Reconstruction. He eventually became disenchanted with the treatment of African Americans in the region. By 1879 Rapier was one of the leaders of the Negro emigration movement that encouraged African Americans to leave the South. He purchased land in Kansas for black settlement and lectured extensively on the advantages of black settlement in the West.
Jeremiah Haralson (R-AL) 1875-1877
Jeremiah Haralson was born near Columbus, Georgia on April 1, 1846. The slave of Georgia planter John Haralson, he was taken to Alabama where he remained in bondage until 1865. Haralson taught himself to read and write and later became a skilled orator and debater.
Haralson won a seat in Alabama’s House of Representatives and in 1872 was elected to the State Senate. In 1874 Haralson again ran for the U.S. House of Representatives. Haralson narrowly won the Republican primary over Liberal Republican Frederick G. Bromberg. Soon after the primary Bromberg accused Haralson of voter fraud and sought to deny him his seat. The Democrats who controlled the U.S. House of Representatives supported Haralson and on March 4, 1875 he took his seat in Congress.
Congressman Jeremiah Haralson supported the policies of President Ulysses Grant and urged black voters to remain loyal to the Republican Party. Appointed to the House Committee on Public expenditures, he introduced legislation to use proceeds from public land sales for educational purposes and for the relief of the Medical College of Alabama. Haralson broke with other Republican-era black Congressmen by criticizing the use of federal soldiers to control violence and ensure orderly voting in the South. He also favored general amnesty for former Confederates.
John Adams Hyman (R-NC) 1875-1877
John Adams Hyman was born into slavery on July 23, 1840 in Warren County, North Carolina. Hyman’s thirst for knowledge resulted in him being sold away from his family for attempting to read a spelling book that was given to him by a sympathetic white jeweler. He continued to seek knowledge at his new residence in Alabama and was sold again for fear that he would influence other slaves. Hyman was sold eight more times for his attempts to educate himself.
At the age of 25 Hyman was freed and returned to his family in North Carolina. He quickly enrolled in school where he received an elementary education. Hyman also became a landowner and merchant. Hyman, a Mason, soon emerged as a leader of the post-Civil War North Carolina black community.
Following the 1868 Constitutional Convention Hyman was elected to the North Carolina State Senate from Warren County. He served in the State Senate until 1874. In 1872, Hyman was unsuccessful in a bid to become North Carolina’s first black congressman when he campaigned in the state’s heavily African American Second Congressional District. He ran again in 1874, winning against a white Democrat. Hyman was the only Republican elected to Congress from North Carolina that year. The election was contested, however, and Hyman’s term ended before he was officially seated.
While in Congress, Hyman proposed federal funding for Civil War-related damages in his district. He also called for the reimbursement of the freedmen and women who had lost money in the Federally Chartered Freedman’s Bank. However, because his seat was challenged his entire term, Hyman was unable to fully make his presence felt in Congress.
Charles Nash (R-LA) 1875-1877
Republican Charles Edmund Nash was born in Opelousas, St. Landry Parish, Louisiana, on May 23, 1844. Before his time in Congress ,Nash attended common schools, was a bricklayer in New Orleans, and had enlisted as a private for the U.S. volunteers in July of 1863. He was later promoted to Sergeant Major, but his military service proved to be disastrous as he lost the lower third of his right leg just before the Civil War’s end.
As a result of his military service and strong support of the Republican Party, he was appointed to the position of night inspector in the New Orleans Customs House – a powerful post in the local political machine. In 1874 he was elected, uncontested, to the House of Representatives from the 6th Congressional District.
Despite his easy election, Nash made little political impact during his time in Congress. He was assigned to the Committee on Education and Labor. On June 7th, 1876 Nash made the only major address during his term as Congressman. His speech condemned the violent and anti- democratic actions of some Southern Democrats, called for greater education among the populace, and also for increased racial and political peace especially in the South.
Robert Smalls (R-SC) 1875-79, 1882-83, 1884-87
Robert Smalls was born in Beaufort, South Carolina, on April 5, 1839 and worked as a house slave until the age of 12. At that point his owner, John K. McKee, sent him to Charleston to work as a waiter, ship rigger, and sailor, with all earnings going to McKee. This arrangement continued until Smalls was 18 when he negotiated to keep all but $15 of his monthly pay, a deal which allowed Smalls to begin saving money. The savings that he accumulated were later used to purchase his wife and daughter from their owner for a sum of $800. Their son was born a few years later.
In addition to his claim to fame as a Congressman, Robert Smalls is well-known for stealing a Confederate ship, the Planter, on which he worked as a deckhand during the war. On May 13, 1862, the crew of the Planter went ashore for the evening, leaving Smalls to guard the ship and its contents. Smalls loaded the ship with his wife, children and 12 other slaves from the city and sailed it to the area of the harbor where Union ships had formed their blockade. This trip led the ship past five forts, all of which required the correct whistle signal to indicate they were a Confederate ship. Smalls eventually presented the Planter before Onward, a Union blockade ship and raised the white flag of surrender. He later turned over all charts, a Confederate naval code book, and armaments, as well as the Planter itself, over to the Union Navy.
Smalls’s feat is partly credited with persuading a reluctant President Abraham Lincoln to now consider allowing African Americans into the Union Army. Smalls went on a speaking tour across the North to describe the episode and to recruit black soldiers for the war effort. By late 1863 he returned to the war zone to pilot the Planter, now a Union war vessel. In December 1863 he was promoted to Captain of the vessel, becoming the first African American to hold that rank in the history of the United States Navy.
At the war’s conclusion, Smalls received a commission as brigadier general of the South Carolina militia. He then purchased his former owner’s house in Beaufort, but he was generous to the economically devastated McKees.11 Having received a rudimentary education from private tutors in Philadelphia during the war, Smalls continued his studies after settling in Beaufort.
After the Civil War Smalls entered politics as a Republican. Smalls’s impressive résumé and his ability to speak the Sea Island Gullah dialect enhanced his local popularity and opened doors in South Carolina politics. He was elected to the South Carolina House of Representatives and later to the South Carolina Senate. He was elected to the United States House of Representatives first from South Carolina’s 5th Congressional District and later from South Carolina’s 7th Congressional District. Smalls served in Congress between 1868 and 1889.
South Carolina “Red Shirts”—a local branch of the Ku Klux Klan—regularly threatened Smalls and his supporters during often chaotic and violent campaigns. Smalls described his 1876 election as “a carnival of bloodshed and violence.” Smalls’s congressional career focused on promoting African-American civil rights. “My race needs no special defense, for the past history of them in this country proves them to be equal of any people anywhere,” Smalls asserted in 1895. “All they need is an equal chance in the battle of life.”
By 1882, South Carolina Democrats had gerry–mandered the state so that only one district retained any hope of electing a black candidate. The new district’s lines demonstrated the legislature’s intent; completely ignoring county lines, the district contained one–quarter of the state’s substantial black population (82 percent of the district’s population was black).31 However, Smalls continued to win elections and served for 3 more terms.