Wikipedia tells us that there were 4 generations of African-Americans in the House of Representatives. The first generation served during Reconstruction from 1870-1887. Here I will present the Congressmen of the Second Generation. In my previous post, I left off James O’Hara because he didn’t really fit in the First Generation, during Reconstruction; he served after the troops had withdrawn from the South. I probably should have included him then. I am including him here.
In looking at the Second Generation, I am struck by how challenging it was to be a Republican in a Democratic-controlled Congress when nothing that you were trying to achieve had any real chance of success. The men of the Second Generation were trying to secure basic human rights for African-Americans: fighting discrimination, Black Codes and the rise of the Ku Klux Klan. And at every turn, they were defeated. They also tried to secure needed infrastructure and economic gains for their districts, especially since their districts were largely African-American and largely poor. Again, no success. These men were smart, accomplished, and often great orators. Their speeches on the House floor made it into newspapers, and caused many people to take them seriously and give them respect. But they were fighting a lost cause. It was no longer politically expedient to “fight for Negro causes”. With no support from Democrats or their fellow Republicans, the Congressmen of the Second Generation were unable to make a difference in any meaningful way. But they gave it their best effort. And deserve recognition and praise.
- James O’Hara (R-NC) 1883-1887
- Henry Cheatham (R-NC) 1889-1893 – Defeated Hyman and O’Hara in the primaries
- John Mercer Langston (R-VA) 1890-1891
- Thomas Miller (R-SC) 1890-1891
- George Murray (R-SC) 1893-1895, 1896-1897 – Defeated Miller in the primaries
- George Henry White (R-NC) 1897-1901 – Defeated Cheatham in the primaries
James O’Hara (R-NC) 1883-1887
James Edward O’Hara was born February 26, 1844, in New York City, the illegitimate son of an Irish merchant and a black West Indian mother. While growing up he worked as a deckhand on ships that sailed between New York and the West Indies. When he was eighteen O’Hara settled Halifax County, North Carolina with a group of missionaries. Well–educated, he taught primary school to free black children in New Bern and Goldsboro, North Carolina in the 1860’s. He studied law at Howard University and passed the North Carolina Bar in 1873. From 1868 to 1869, O’Hara also served in the state house of representatives. In 1873, he was elected chairman of the Halifax County board of commissioners. O’Hara began his long quest for a seat in the U.S. Congress in 1874 when he made a bid for North Carolina’s northeastern “Black Second” district seat. O’Hara made another attempt at the “Black Second” nomination in 1878. Between congressional bids, O’Hara was active in local and national politics. By 1881, he had aligned himself with a statewide anti–Prohibition campaign and was an architect of a coalition between Liberal Democrats and North Carolina Republicans in 1882. That same year, he made his fourth attempt to gain the “Black Second” seat, bolstered by discontented local black politicians who believed they were being marginalized within the party.
During his first term O’Hara was the only African American in Congress. As part of the Republican minority in the House, O’Hara received appointments to the Mines and Mining and the Expenditures on Public Buildings committees when he arrived in Washington for the 48th Congress (1883–1885) in December 1883. He later traded his Mines and Mining position for a spot on the Invalid Pensions Committee in the 49th Congress (1885–1887). O’Hara was active on the Invalid Pensions Committee. In the first session, he introduced more than 100 committee reports, serving as an unofficial subcommittee chairman.15 O’Hara did not take the floor to make long addresses; instead, he delivered concise speeches and put forth bold legislation, often fighting for the rights he and other Black Americans had lost since the end of Reconstruction.
O’Hara was dedicated to civil rights and progress for African Americans. He was an active speaker against racial violence and introduced one of the first bills to make lynching a federal crime. When the House considered a bill to regulate interstate commerce O’Hara introduced an amendment requiring equal accommodations for all travelers. His amendment failed. O’Hara also fought for the rights of women when he introduced a bill that would prohibit gender based salary discrimination in education.
Henry Cheatham (R-NC) 1889-1893
Cheatham was born into slavery in Henderson, North Carolina in 1957. An adolescent after the American Civil War, Cheatham benefited from country’s short lived commitment to provide educational opportunities to all children. He attended public school where he excelled in his studies. After high school Cheatham was admitted to Shaw University, founded for the children of freedmen, graduating with honors in 1882. He earned a masters degree from the same institution in 1887. Cheatham ran a successful campaign for the office of Registrar of Deeds at Vance County, North Carolina in 1884, and he served the county for four years. He also studied law during his first term in office, with an eye toward national politics.
By the late 1880s, the Democratic–controlled North Carolina state legislature had tightened suffrage laws, greatly restricting black voters. Jim Crow statutes had disfranchised nearly 60 percent of the voting base in the “Black Second,” a predominantly African–American district that snaked along coastal sections of the northeastern part of the state.3 A split in the African–American vote enabled “Black Second” Democrat Furnifold Simmons, to defeat incumbent Representative James O’Hara and another black candidate, Israel Abbott, in 1886. In 1888 Henry Cheatham ran for Congress as a Republican in North Carolina’s Second Congressional District. Cheatham won back the “Black Second” district in eastern North Carolina, recapturing the seat formerly held by Representatives John Hyman and James O’Hara. The race was unpleasant. Unable to depend on the divided vote that aided Simmons in 1886, district Democrats used white North Carolinians’ racial fears against Cheatham.8 The black candidate fought back, warning black voters that Democrats wanted to return them to slavery.9 Cheatham defeated Simmons by a narrow 51 percent (a margin of roughly 600 votes).10 Across the state, Republicans had their best showing since 1872, claiming three of the state’s nine congressional seats.11
As a United States Congressman, Cheatham’s strong educational background earned him an assignment on the Committee on Education. Cheatham also served on the Committee on Expenditures on Public Buildings in the 51st Congress. The North Carolina Representative was a behind–the–scenes legislator, focusing on his committee work and giving few speeches on the House Floor.14 Cheatham supported Henry Cabot Lodge’s Federal Elections Bill sponsored by representatives who wished to end election violence against African American voters. Although Cheatham’s efforts helped the measure pass in the House of Representatives, the Lodge bill was killed in the U.S. Senate. Later, Cheatham sponsored an unsuccessful bill requiring Congress to appropriate funds for African American participation at the World’s Columbian Exposition of 1893. Cheatham wanted the fair’s visitors to see the demonstrable progress African Americans had made since the end of slavery. More effective at winning political concessions outside of the halls of Congress, Cheatham used his political clout to win federal posts for Republicans. In all he secured over eighty jobs for members of his party. His efforts were controversial, however, as African Americans and whites alike, complained that too many positions went to the “opposite” race.
Cheatham’s black constituents faced unraveling economic and political conditions. During his first term, the teetering economy in eastern North Carolina plunged into depression. The prices of two staple crops, cotton and corn, dropped dramatically, squeezing small farmers.18 Poor economic prospects led to a decline in the black voter base in Cheatham’s district. By 1890, many emigrated from the economically depressed Carolinas in search of better opportunities in Arkansas, Texas, and Mississippi. In an attempt to stem the flight, Cheatham returned to his district in the first month of the 51st Congress and appealed to his constituents.19 But disfranchisement laws—including rigid requirements for proving birthplace and heritage, which necessitated documentation many freedmen did not possess—further discouraged local blacks.20 African Americans urged Cheatham and his Republican colleagues from North Carolina, Representatives John Bower and Hamilton Ewart, to withdraw from the House Republican Conference to protest the party’s perceived indifference to their plight. Black Republican voters insisted Republican leaders should be reminded of their dependence on black voters in the South. A loyal adherent to his party, Cheatham refused their demand. In 1890, seeking to attract whites to his camp, Cheatham vowed to aid depressed farmers. He maintained his ties to black voters by railing against steel magnate Andrew Carnegie for hiring foreign laborers instead of blacks in his northern mills.25 Cheatham won re–election by roughly 1,000 votes, or 52 percent.26 He was the only Republican in the North Carolina delegation and the only black Member of the 52nd Congress (1891–1893). Despite an overwhelmingly Democratic Congress, Cheatham won a plum assignment to the Committee on Agriculture.27
John Mercer Langston (R-VA) 1890-1891
John Mercer Langston, the youngest of four children, was born a free black in Louisa County, Virginia in 1829. Son of a white slaveowner and an emancipated slave woman of Indian and black ancestry. Langston gained distinction as an abolitionist, politician, and attorney. At fourteen Langston began his studies at the Preparatory Department at Oberlin College. Known for its radicalism and abolitionist politics, Oberlin was the first college in the United States to admit black and white students. Langston completed his studies in 1849, becoming the fifth African American male to graduate from Oberlin’s Collegiate Department. After two law schools denied him admission, he studied under local abolitionists in Elyria, Ohio. In September 1854, a committee on the district court confirmed his knowledge of the law, deeming him “nearer white than black,” and admitted him to the Ohio bar. In 1855 Langston was elected town clerk of Brownhelm Township in Ohio, becoming the first black elected official in the state. In addition to his law practice and activities as town clerk, Langston and his brothers, Gideon and Charles, participated in the Underground Railroad.
During the Civil War, Langston recruited black volunteers for the Massachusetts 54th Infantry Regiment, officially the country’s first African American military unit. In 1868 Langston moved to Washington, D.C. to help establish the nation’s first black law school at Howard University. He became its first dean and served briefly as acting president of Howard in 1872. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston U.S. minister to Haiti. In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes appointed Langston U.S. minister to Haiti. He returned to the U.S. in 1885 and became president of Virginia Normal and Collegiate Institute (now Virginia State University). Settling in south–central Virginia, Langston was viewed as a celebrity by his black neighbors. In 1888, a citizen’s committee asked Langston to run for a seat in the U.S. House, representing the “Black Belt of Virginia,” a region whose population was 65 percent black Langston ran as an Independent against a white Democratic opponent. The election results were contested for 18 months. Langston was finally declared the winner and served the six remaining months of his term.
Langston’s experience in higher learning earned him a position on the Committee on Education.31 He immediately assisted the Republican majority by voting in favor of the controversial McKinley Tariff, a protective measure designed to drive up the price of cheap goods manufactured abroad. A Democratic newspaper commented that Langston’s position on tariffs represented “a wall about the country so high and so great that the British lion would never have been able to get over it without the aid of dynamite or a scaling ladder.”32
Returning in December 1890 as a lame duck to his first full session in Congress, Langston made his first speech on January 16, 1891. He emphasized blacks’ U.S. citizenship, condemning calls for foreign emigration and what he deemed the Democratic Party’s attempt to thwart black freedom. “Abuse us as you will, gentlemen,” Langston told Democrats, “we will increase and multiply until, instead of finding every day five hundred black babies turning their bright eyes to greet the rays of the sun, the number shall be five thousand and still go on increasing. There is no way to get rid of us. This is our native country.” Frequent, loud applause from the Republican side of the chamber interrupted Langston’s speech. Newspapers admitted that Langston’s speech rambled, but deemed him one of the most eloquent speakers on the House Floor.41 One day after his speech, Langston asked the U.S. Attorney General to send the House all documentation of suits on alleged violations of voting rights.42 The Judiciary Committee agreed to Langston’s resolution, and it was adopted in the whole House. However, the Attorney General’s office never complied, and the disfranchisement of southern freedmen continuedThomas Miller (R-SC) 1890-1891
Thomas Ezekiel Miller was born on June 17, 1849, in Ferrebeeville, South Carolina. He was raised by Richard and Mary Ferrebee Miller, both former slaves, but his fair skin color caused much speculation about his biological origins. Later in life, Miller’s apparent mixed–race heritage availed him political opportunities, but also forced him to navigate a complicated racial middle ground in the postwar South. Thomas Miller struggled his entire life to find acceptance in the black and white communities. African–American political rivals dismissed him as a white imposter attempting to take advantage of the post–Civil War black electorate. Yet, Miller, who embraced the black heritage nurtured by his adoptive parents, was also ostracized by white colleagues.3
During the Civil War, Miller delivered newspapers on a Charleston railroad line running to Savannah, Georgia. He was conscripted into the military when the Confederate Army seized the railroads. Captured by Union forces in January 1865, he spent two weeks in prison before his release. When the Civil War ended, Miller went to Hudson, New York, where once again he sold newspapers on a railroad line. He finished his education at the Hudson School, just north of New York City, before earning a scholarship to Lincoln University, a school for African–American students, in Chester County, Pennsylvania. After graduating in 1872, Miller returned to South Carolina, where he won his first elective office as school commissioner of coastal Beaufort County. He subsequently moved to Columbia and studied law at the newly integrated University of South Carolina. He continued his studies under the tutelage of state solicitor P. L. Wiggins and state supreme court justice Franklin L. Moses, Sr., a future governor of South Carolina. Admitted to the bar in December 1875, Miller set up his practice in Beaufort, South Carolina. Shortly after moving to Beaufort, Thomas Miller was elected to the state general assembly, where he served until 1880 before securing a term in the state senate.
Miller was deeply involved in attempts to revive the flagging South Carolina Republican Party after Reconstruction ended in 1877. He was a member of the Republican state executive committee from 1878 to 1880 and the state party chairman in 1884. Miller also was a customs inspector and served on the state militia throughout the 1880s before returning to the state house of representatives in 1886 for one year. In 1888, Miller entered the race for a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives that was formerly occupied by black Representative and Civil War hero Robert Smalls. The “shoestring district” was thus named because its narrow borders twisted from Sumter County in the center of the state to Georgetown and parts of Charleston on the coast.6 Covering the black belt of South Carolina, including the center of the state’s pre–Civil War rice and cotton plantations, the gerrymandered district boasted a population that was 82 percent black. Facing the incumbent, Miller received financial backing from Randall D. George, one of the wealthiest black men in the state, who made his money distributing rosins and turpentine in the region.9 Representative Elliott was initially declared the winner by slightly more than 1,000 votes in a light turnout, with 54 percent to Miller’s 45 percent.10 Miller contested the election, charging that many registered black voters were prohibited from casting their ballots. He vehemently opposed the “eight box ballot law,” a state statute that required multiple ballot boxes at each polling station to confuse black voters.11 Though the Republican–dominated Committee on Elections in the 51st Congress ruled in Miller’s favor, his case did not come up on the House Floor until September 23, 1890, immediately after a vote seating Virginia’s first black Representative, John Langston. Inspired by their success seating Langston (complicated by Democrats, who deserted the House Chamber in an effort to prevent a quorum), House Republicans decided to take up Miller’s claim. The House seated Miller by a vote of 157 to 1. He was sworn in the following day and given a position on the Committee on Labor.13
South Carolina followed Mississippi in black voter disenfranchisement by enforcing the ability to read and write the Constitution or to own property worth at least $300.00, a move that directly reduced Miller’s African American support.
George Murray (R-SC) 1893-1895, 1896-1897
George Washington Murray was born on September 22, 1853, near Rembert, in Sumter County, South Carolina. in 1874 he entered the University of South Carolina in Columbia after it was opened to black students by the Republican state government.4 After federal withdrawal from the South following the end of Reconstruction in 1877, Murray and the other black students were forced out of the university. He eventually graduated from the nearby State Normal Institution. Working as a farmer, a teacher, and a lecturer in Sumter County, Murray obtained eight patents for various farming tools.6 His farming success garnered him local recognition, and his selection as the Sumter County delegate to the 1880 Republican Party state convention sparked his interest in politics.
In 1892, Murray ran for the congressional seat. Conducting a campaign that emphasized his African roots (his opponent, Thomas Miller, was light–skinned), Murray defeated Miller and white candidate E. W. Brayton to capture the Republican nomination.8 Though the “shoestring district” had been modified slightly by reapportionment, nearly 75 percent of the population was black.9 During the general election, especially in areas outside Charleston, precinct workers rejected votes for Murray for insignificant reasons, for example, the candidate’s ballots were one–eighth or three–sixteenths of an inch too short, the ballot boxes were not opened at the appointed time, or the precinct managers failed to record the name of the precinct before sending the election returns to Columbia.10 However, Murray’s chances were strengthened by divisions within the district’s Democratic Party. Canvassers for the state board of election (Democratic supporters of Governor Tillman) confirmed that Murray was victorious by 40 votes.11 He received an assignment to the Committee on Education, but most of Murray’s work in Congress was outside the jurisdiction of this committee.
Murray’s position as the only black Member during his two terms in Congress defined his career. One of the first things he did after arriving in Washington was to visit newly inaugurated Democratic President Grover Cleveland. In a personal meeting with the President, Murray told Cleveland that southern blacks were concerned about their welfare under a Democratic President but that the new administration had a fresh opportunity to welcome African Americans into the Democratic Party. Murray asked Cleveland to consider appointing more blacks to political offices through patronage, but neither the President nor his congressional allies prioritized building political capital among black Americans.12
In 1894, Murray faced an uphill battle for re–election to the 54th Congress. The South Carolina legislature dissolved the “shoestring district,” cutting off much of Charleston and Murray’s black voting base.21 Democratic infighting ceased when former Representative William Elliott won the Democratic nomination. Elliott emerged with 60 percent of the vote in the general election, but several precincts reported instances of fraud.22 Murray appealed to the state board of election canvassers, but they rejected his claim.
As a result, Murray spent the third session of the 53rd Congress (1893–1895) preparing to contest Elliott’s election before the House. He submitted a massive amount of testimony indicating election fraud; the paperwork was reported to be nearly a foot thick.23 Murray’s evidence revealed that ballot boxes in three of four heavily Republican counties in his new district were never opened, that black voters were issued fraudulent registration certificates or paperwork was withheld entirely, and that precincts in black regions failed to open. Witnesses also reported that William Elliott himself stood in front of ballot boxes taunting black men and preventing them from submitting their votes. The worst fraud occurred in the small portion of southern Charleston that remained in Murray’s district. A precinct compromising 2,000 more registered black voters than white declared 2,811 votes for Elliott and 397 for Murray.24 After reviewing the testimony, the House Committee on Elections—composed of a strong Republican majority—concluded that the final victory belonged to Murray by 434 votes.
In 1893, when Representative Henry Tucker of Virginia authored a bill to remove impartial election supervisors and federal marshals from southern polling places, Murray fearlessly sought to block the legislation.15 On several occasions, he interrupted Tucker’s allies on the House Floor, citing personal experiences of discrimination.16 On October 2, 1893, Murray interrupted freshman Representative (and future Speaker) Beauchamp (Champ) Clark of Missouri, who was insisting that state officials adequately monitored polling places. Murray noted that these officials were often prejudiced appointees of white supremacist Democratic state governments. He also refuted Clark’s claim that federal Republican officials coerced black voters into voting as one bloc. Three days later, Murray made a long speech against Representative Tucker’s legislation. He ended by repeating his plea to President Cleveland: “While I can not persuade myself that there can be found here and in the Senate enough cruel and wicked men to make this law effective, still if I am disappointed in that…I hope that the broad–souled and philanthropic man occupying the Executive chair is too brave and humane to join in this cowardly onslaught to strike down the walls impaling the last vestige of liberty to a helpless class of people.”17 A long thunderous bout of applause from the Republican side of the chamber followed Murray’s speech, which earned him the epithet the “Black Eagle of Sumter.”18
Political trouble at home prevented Murray from attending the final two sessions of the 54th Congress. In 1895, Tillman Democrats in the state legislature passed a referendum to revise the 1868 state constitution. Murray tried to organize black voters to elect sympathetic delegates to the constitutional convention, but only six black delegates were sent, including former Representatives Robert Smalls and Thomas Miller. The results were disastrous for black South Carolina voters. The primarily white, Democratic convention created new requirements for proving residency, instituted poll taxes, established property requirements, and created literacy tests—all aimed at disfranchising black voters.26
George Henry White (R-NC) 1897-1901
George White was born in 1852 in Rosindale, Bladen County, North Carolina, where his natural mother may have been a slave. His father Wiley Franklin White was a free person of color, of African and Scots-Irish ancestry, who worked as a laborer in a turpentine camp. White graduated from Howard University in Washington, D.C. in 1877, and was admitted to the bar in 1879. White practiced law and served as the Principal of the State Normal School of North Carolina until he entered politics . In 1880 White ran as a Republican candidate from New Bern and was elected to a single term in the North Carolina House of Representatives. He helped pass a law creating four state normal schools for African Americans in order to train more teachers, and was appointed in 1881 as the principal of one of the schools in New Bern. He helped develop the school in its early years and encourage students to go into teaching.
In 1884 White returned to politics, winning election to the North Carolina Senate from Craven County. In 1886, he was elected solicitor and prosecuting attorney for the second judicial district of North Carolina, a post he held for eight years until 1894.
In 1888 and 1890, White reluctantly deferred candidacy for the district’s congressional seat to his brother–in–law Representative Henry Cheatham, whose calculated, conciliatory demeanor contrasted with White’s forthright, demanding, and unyielding personality.7 Cheatham lost his 1892 re–election campaign, and though the two men had an uneasy relationship, they were not outright political enemies until White made a serious bid for the “Black Second” congressional seat in 1894.8 Cheatham planned to capitalize on the redistricting that added a large number of black voters in north–central Vance and Craven counties to the existing district. Amicability between the brothers–in–law disintegrated until 1898, when Cheatham relented, supporting White for a second term.
In 1896 he was elected to the U.S. Congress representing the predominantly black Second District from his residence in Tarboro. White served during what historian Rayford Logan has termed the nadir in race relations for the post-Reconstruction South. He was the last African-American Congressman during the beginning of the Jim Crow era and the only African American to serve in Congress during his tenure. The Democrats had regained control of the state legislature in the 1870s, but black candidates continued to be elected from some districts and locally. As a Congressman, a well-educated veteran politician and advocate of racial justice, White served as a spokesman for African Americans at the turn of the twentieth century On January 20, 1900, White introduced the another bill in Congress to make lynching a federal crime to be prosecuted by federal courts; it died in committee, opposed by southern white Democrats, who were making up the Solid South block.[21 White used the power of his office to appoint several African-American postmasters across his district, with the assistance of the state’s Republican senator, Jeter C. Pritchard. They were able to make patronage hires, as did other postmasters.
Indicating that he was well aware that he would be the last black Congressman for some time, White eloquently described the impact and illogical nature of white racism in his “Defense of the Negro Race—Charges Answered,” speech delivered in the U.S. House of Representatives on January 29, 1901. In his speech, white argued that his Euro-American colleagues defied the U.S. Constitution when they encouraged racial violence, flamed the fires of racial animosity, and encouraged passage of laws which denied to African Americans privileges preserved for them in the Fourteenth and Fifteen Amendments. He condemned the tendency among some Democratic Congressmen to publicly extol the negative attributes of a few African American individuals as representative of the entire race. And finally he said:
“This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force.”
After disenfranchisement was achieved in new state constitutions and laws from 1890 to 1908, no African American would be elected to Congress from the South until Barbara Jordan from Texas and Andrew Young from Georgia in 1972 following the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965 during the Civil Rights Movement.