With the election of Barack Obama, the icons of the 1960s civil rights movement were given another moment in the sun. The first black congressmen, who took office during Reconstruction in the nineteenth century, remained largely in the shadows. In Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen, Philip Dray gives these men their proper place, as pioneers in the story of African American liberation. Dray, a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize for At the Hands of Persons Unknown: The Lynching of Black America, has created a very timely book as well as an exceptionally good read.
The history of Reconstruction has had an interesting trajectory. When Reconstruction ended in 1877, Southerners rushed to restore white rule and to justify their renewed oppression of blacks. By the twentieth century, historians had unquestionably accepted white Southern propaganda about Reconstruction. In schoolbooks, historians portrayed Reconstruction as a tragic mistake and an unmitigated failure. They completely ignored the African American point-of-view. In the 1960s, the civil rights movement forced a reappraisal of exactly why giving power to blacks seemed so evil to the white South..
As Dray explains:
As long as forces largely inimical to Reconstruction dominated Reconstruction scholarship, black officials were depicted as incompetents and thieves, or worse, simply airbrushed from the historical record. Later, when greater objectivity was brought to the subject, the black representatives nonetheless often remained marginal figures, their role in Congress and on the national political stage considered largely symbolic. Either view tends to invalidate black political initiative.
Dray’s story begins in 1870 when ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment gave black men – but not women – the right to vote. The reconstructed states in the South began holding elections that included their black populations. As a result, sixteen black men from the South were elected to the U.S. Congress. Among them were Robert Smalls, Robert Brown Elliott, Blanche K. Bruce, P.B.S. Pinchback, and Joseph Rainey. Only Texas, Tennessee, and Arkansas failed to send blacks to the U.S. Congress. As Dray writes of the new members of Congress:
Given the nature of that era, black officeholders tended to be – had to be – exceptional individuals, survivors who had emerged from a world of slavery and war to stand as spokesmen for their race, “men of mark,” as they were called by a contemporary biographer.
As “firsts”, these men received a very high level of scrutiny. The white-controlled media in the South depicted them as backward, ignorant, and monkey-like. Northern white writers, a bit more charitable, expressed surprise at the ability of the men to dazzle with speeches and their commitment to good government. The legislators sought civil rights and protection against the Ku Klux Klan as well as educational and economic reforms. They served as role models and a source of inspiration for a generation of African Americans to the point where photographs of the men could still be found in sharecropper shacks in the 1930s.
As blacks gradually lost the right to vote, the black congressmen were forced out of office. Smalls, still respected for his heroic actions in the Civil War, became a customs collector. Alonzo Ransier, who had once bested a white opponent on the floor of the House of Representatives, spent his final days as a street cleaner in Charleston. Republican George Henry White of North Carolina became the last to leave office when he exited the House of Representatives in 1901. At the time, the North Carolina legislature passed resolutions of thanksgiving that a black man no longer held office.
Dray has restored the first black congressmen to a place of honor. He has also created a densely textured history of Reconstruction that is very likely to become a classic. This book is highly recommended for anyone with an interest in politics or black history.