Blacks In Congress Among Forgotten Firsts Not all of the epic stories in American history are well known. Consider the lives of the first black members of Congress. They served during the Reconstruction era, just after the Civil War. Historian Phillip Dray talks with NPR's Tony Cox about his book, Capitol Men.
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Blacks In Congress Among Forgotten Firsts

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Blacks In Congress Among Forgotten Firsts

Blacks In Congress Among Forgotten Firsts

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TONY COX, host:

I'm Tony Cox and this is News & Notes. Here's a listener favorite. Not all the epic stories in American history are well-known. Consider the lives of the first African-American members of Congress. They served during reconstruction just after the Civil War. Historian Philip Dray tells their stories in a new book, "Capitol Men." Philip, welcome to News & Notes.

Mr. PHILIP DRAY (Historian, Author): Thanks, Tony.

COX: Let's start with this. Congressman George White from North Carolina ended his term in office in 1901. He was the first to introduce an anti-lynching law and it got him run out of office. I want to start there because the end of his term marked the end of an era, didn't it?

Mr. DRAY: Yes, absolutely. It's an era that began shortly after the Civil War, when Congress, in order to allow the former Confederate states back into the Union, insisted that they hold constitutional conventions which would make it possible for black men to vote. And so that caused a kind of electoral revolution in the south. You suddenly had blacks not only voting, something that they were very enthusiastic about, but also electing black officials for the first time. So you had the beginning of a series of about 20 black congressmen who came to Washington from the south and served through - in the end of reconstruction in the late 1870s and then, as you mentioned, all the way up to George White, the very end of the century.

COX: Now, you write about the first seven black members of Congress. What did they have in common beside their race? For example, they weren't all former slaves, were they?

Mr. DRAY: The one thing that I think they had in common was that they all were very exceptional people. Some of them had been slaves. Some had been free blacks. What they had in common was a kind of a, you know, sort of ambition to lead and to serve.

COX: Of these early black politicians, who stands out for you and why?

Mr. DRAY: Well, there are several. I've - there's a man named Robert Brown Elliot who was a congressman from South Carolina. He was a little bit like Barack Obama in a way in that he was, his origins were a little mysterious, he was extremely eloquent and wrote beautiful speeches and in fact, gave a speech on the floor of Congress in 1874 where he kind of really - he was confronting the former vice president of the Confederacy in Congress and sort of won the day and his speech was lauded all over the country and they even made a beautiful lithograph of it and he was kind of the toast of the town. So he was an interesting character.

Another one I could mention is Robert Smalls who - they called him the Boat Thief. He - as a slave he was working on a Confederate boat and he managed to steal it and deliver it to the Union navy, for which he became kind of a hero in the North and then sort of capitalized on that to become a politician after the war and, he served a very long time from the Sea Islands district of South Carolina and was just hated by the whites of the South. They always called him the Boat Thief for the rest of his life, into the 20th century.

COX: Your book notwithstanding, history has not been kind, I don't think, to the first black congressmen, many of them being depicted as corrupt or buffoons. We know that that is an inaccurate stereotype, but is there any truth behind that representation at all?

Mr. DRAY: Well, not really. In other words the - you have to remember that of course, the South was very resistant to the idea of Reconstruction, and the black elected officials were, in a certain way, the worst insult to them. The idea that their former chattel would become into, you know, come to occupy positions of authority was very insulting to them and, of course, the press caricatured the black legislators mercilessly. The truth of course, was different which was what bothered the whites in the South about the black politicians was not that they're - not their ignorance but rather their intelligence, because the blacks took very well actually to being politicians. They were fairly adept at it, they came to understand the legislative process and were really quite effective.

COX: Well, to follow that point, how effective was the Reconstruction period, and why was it called the Glorious Failure?

Mr. DRAY: Well that's, in a way, a very good term because it was - it was very idealistic at first, and it was sort of glorious. It was based on a lot of very sort of nice, democratic instincts about these new citizens. There were four million new citizens after the Civil War, making them equal, making them citizens, giving them the right to vote. There was an effort that the black congressmen were involved in to actually make it so that blacks would enjoy equality in what's called, you know, public accommodations, in other words, riding on a train, seeing a play in a theater, eating in a restaurant - that did not succeed. That was sort of their thrust generally, was to kind of try to use the time they had to broaden the equality and the opportunities, really, for black Americans.

COX: Congressman George White from North Carolina ended his term, as we said, in 1901. There was not another congressman, at least from the South, as I understand it until when - 1970?

Dr. DRAY: It was 1973 when Barbara Jordan and Andrew Young were elected. So, you know, it's funny because George White was a, is a wonderful character and I loved including him in the book. He was the first person to advocate a federal anti-lynching law. And for his trouble he got attacked by his home state. The white press in North Carolina went after him viciously and he fought back, he sort of exposed the kind of sexual double standard of, you know, you're complaining, you're making up all these things about sexual assaults on white women, let's start talking about the actual consensual relations between white women and black men, and also the access that white men seemed to want to enjoy with black women, and so on and so on. And this, of course, at that - in the 1890s this was like beyond insulting. And the campaign to get him out of Congress was intense, so much so that the day he left, the state of North Carolina declared a day of thanksgiving.

COX: That was Philip Dray, he is the author of "Capitol Men: The Epic Story Of Reconstruction Through The Lives Of The First Black Congressmen." Dray joined us from our NPR studios in New York.

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