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“All men are created equal,” proclaimed the Declaration of Independence. Nearly a century later, the Fifteenth Amendment redeemed that promise. The right to vote, it stated, could not be denied “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.”
Educated African-Americans provided leadership for freed slaves. In 1870, Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina became the first black member to serve in the House. During Reconstruction, 14 African-Americans held House seats. Eight had been born into slavery, six born free.
When federal troops left the South in 1877, Reconstruction ended. So did the era of opportunity. African-Americans gradually disappeared from the House. As Southern states passed “Jim Crow” laws enforcing segregation in the 1890s, African-Americans were barred from the polls and from political office.
Left to right: Senator Hiram Revels (MS), Representatives Benjamin Turner (AL), Robert DeLarge (SC), Josiah Walls (FL), Jefferson Long (GA), Joseph Rainey (SC), and Robert Elliott (SC).
Prints and Photographs Division, Library of Congress
The first African-American to address Congress, John Willis Menard unsuccessfully defends his election to the House.
Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress
Representative Rainey of South Carolina was the first African-American to serve in the House of Representatives. Nearly a year before, the certification of Louisiana’s J. Willis Menard had been denied.
Records of the U.S. House of Representatives, National Archives and Records Administration, Washington, D.C.