First Blacks in Congress

The first seven blacks elected to Congress were all Republicans.

Hiram Rhodes Revels (1822-1901) was born free and educated in a black school. He spent his early life as a barber and entered the Gospel ministry. During the Civil War, he recruited three regiments of black troops to fight for the Union. In 1870 he was chosen as a Republican U.S. Senator from Mississippi (the first black man to serve in the U.S. Senate), filling the seat once held by Jefferson Davis, who had vacated his seat to become President of the Confederacy. On his return to Mississippi, Revels became the first president of Alcorn College and editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate. He died while attending a church conference.

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Benjamin Sterling Turner (1825-1894) was raised as a slave and self-educated. His master owned a large hotel, and when he left to fight for the Confederacy, Turner ran the hotel. Turner saved his money and set up a livery stable, lumberyard, and invested in bonds. When the war ended in 1865, Turner was said to have more money than his former master. In 1870, he was elected as the first black congressman from Alabama as a Republican. After Congress, he pursued agricultural and business interests until his death.

Robert Carlos Delarge (1842-1874) was born as a slave and received only a limited education, serving as a tailor and farmer. In 1867, he chaired the Platform Committee of the Republican Party, advocating open public schools, voting reforms, and several civil rights issues. In 1868, he was elected to the State House and in 1870 he became State Land Commissioner, making home and land ownership available to the poor. In 1871, he was elected as a Republican to Congress and died of a tuberculosis-type disease in 1874.

Josiah Thomas Walls (1842-1905) was born as a slave and during the Civil War was forced to serve in the Confederate Army until captured by Union troops. He then enlisted on the Union side, serving as a Corporal and artillery instructor. In 1870 he was elected as the only US Representative for the entire State. Like other black Republicans, Walls’ right to sit in Congress was challenged by Democrats, and twice he was sent home but re-elected by the voters. After Congress, he engaged in agricultural pursuits until his death.

Jefferson Franklin Long (1836-1900) was born as a slave and self-educated. He was a tailor and operated his own thriving business. However, because his clients were largely white Democrats, his business suffered greatly after he was elected to Congress in 1871 as Georgia’s first black Representative. In February 1871, he became the first black to deliver a speech in the US House. He was outspoken against lynchings and the Ku Klux Klan and strongly urged blacks to continue to vote for Republicans. After his service in Congress, Long resumed his business in Georgia until his died in 1900.

Joseph Hayne Rainey (1832-1887) was born as a slave and received only limited schooling. After the Civil War, he was elected to the State Senate. In 1870, he was elected to the US House as a Republican, becoming both the first black ever elected to the US Congress as well as the first black Representative from South Carolina. Rainey assisted in the passage of the final two of the four Republican Civil Rights bills – protecting civil rights that were scorned and ignored by the Democrats until the mid-twentieth century. Rainey also acted as Speaker of the US House, presiding over its session in May 1874. He served in Congress longer than any other black elected during that era and then pursued several business interests until his death.

Robert Brown Elliott (1842-1884) was born and educated in England, able to read German, Spanish, French, and Latin. He moved to Boston in 1867 and then accepted a job in South Carolina as the editor of a black Republican newspaper, the South Carolina Leader. In 1868, he was elected to the State House and in 1870, he was elected as a Republican US Representative to Congress. In 1874, he led the debate on a civil rights bill against Georgia Democrat Alexander Stephens who had served as Vice-President of the Confederacy. While at the height of his political career, Elliott resigned from the House and returned to South Carolina to help the black Republican majority retain its power against Democratic attacks. Elliott later retired to New Orleans where he practiced law until his death.

Information compiled from poster available at Wallbuilders

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