Image 1 of
Zoom In
Zoom Out

A Remarkable Event in the History of the National Congress, from Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, December 26, 1868

The first African-American to address Congress, John Willis Menard unsuccessfully defends his election to the House.

Prints & Photographs Division, Library of Congress

A Remarkable Event in the History of the National Congress

The Second American Revolution

“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.