Rooted in Reconstruction: The First Wave of Black Congressmen

The Reconstruction Era─the period immediately following the Civil War, from 1865 to 1877─is often characterized by historians as a depraved time, when corrupt exploiters from the North and “ignorant” former slaves overtook the Grand Ole South. The point of Reconstruction was to reorganize the Southern states after the Civil War – and provide a means to reintegrate them into the Union. Most notably, finding ways by which whites and Blacks could operate in a non-slave society.

Unsurprisingly, the period of Reconstruction was not happily received by Southern states and most vengefully resisted. Despite this, the Era was actually a high point for Black folks with as many as 2,000 Black men serving in political office during this period. However, despite the influx of newly elected Black officials, many were still subject to the prejudices of the era when they attempted to fulfill their duties as policymakers.

Many Black congressmen were refused service at Washington, DC establishments, and were also subject to death threats. In one compelling incident, black South Carolinian Congressman Robert Elliott got into a very heated exchange with Alexander Stephens, the former vice president of the Confederacy, over a bill that would ban discrimination in public spaces.

Although Black men were elected to office during this period, many were soon ousted and the racist and a-historic mischaracterization of their tenure as a time riddled with incompetence is what some used to justify Klan backlash.

This period in history serves as an important reminder that getting Black officials elected is only half the battle, as they are often subject to extra scrutiny and treated as scapegoats once in office (see: Obama). Want to learn more? Click the link below.