Opinions & Features November 01, 2019 at 10:00 am

Dead and gone but the legacies of these black congressmen are indelible

Mohammed Awal November 01, 2019 at 10:00 am

November 01, 2019 at 10:00 am | Opinions & Features

Cummings passed away on October 17, 2019 at the age of 68 from "complications concerning longstanding health challenges." He is the first African American lawmaker to lie in state at the U.S. Capitol. (Photo by Tom Williams-Pool/Getty Images)

The first African-American senator and first African-American representative – Hiram Revels of Mississippi and Joseph Rainey of South Carolina respectively – arrived on Capitol Hill in 1870.

Their arrival would rank among the great paradoxes in American history. Why? Southern slave owners a decade earlier held those same seats in Congress. 

The career of African-American in Congress has seen remarkable changes since Revels and Rainey.

“Throughout African-American history in Congress, Members viewed themselves as “surrogate” representatives for the black community nationwide rather than just within the borders of their individual districts or states,” according to a publication on history.house.gov titled Black Americans in Congress.

African-American Members who won election during the 19th century, such as Robert Elliott of South Carolina and George White of North Carolina, embodied these roles.

They served as models for 20th-century black Members, such as Oscar De Priest of Illinois, Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, and Shirley Chisholm of New York.

The election of Oscar De Priest to the U.S. House of Representatives from a Chicago district in 1928 as first African American to serve in Congress from a Northern State, and also the first African American to win election to the House since George White of North Carolina left office in 1901 signified renewed hope for African Americans struggling to regain a foothold in national politics.

Over the next 30 years, just a dozen more African Americans would be elected to Congress underpinning the power and pervasiveness of segregation and modern America and until the mid-1940s, only one black Member served at any given time.

No more than two served simultaneously until 1955, according to history.house.gov. African-American Members faced segregated institution and institutional racism created one roadblock after another and “influenced their agendas, legislative styles, and standing within Congress.”

By midcentury, however, pioneers such as Adam Clayton Powell Jr. of New York, Charles C. Diggs Jr. of Michigan, and Augustus (Gus) Hawkins of California participated in the civil rights debates in Congress and helped shape fundamental laws such as the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and for the African Americans made substantive, not merely symbolic, gains within the institution since Reconstruction. 

William L. Dawson of Illinois and Representative Powell became the first black lawmakers to chair standing congressional committees. Eight of these trailblazers would eventually lead one or more standing committees in the House.

Face2Face Africa in this article looks at the outstanding legacies of three dead black congressmen.

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