Recalling When Congress Was a Whites-Only Club

In 1901, the last of a groundbreaking group of black legislators said goodbye to Capitol Hill.

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But White did not mention the riot or other examples of vigilante violence in this speech. Perhaps he felt he had been there, done that (he had been a vocal congressional critic of lynching); perhaps he saw it as too bitter and divisive a topic to broach at this point.Instead, White focused on the future.He cited statistics showing black economic and educational progress since emancipation. "With all these odds against us," he said, "we are forging our way ahead, slowly, perhaps, but surely. You may tie us and then taunt us for a lack of bravery, but one day we will break the bonds. You may use our labor for two and a half centuries and then taunt us for our poverty, but let me remind you, we will not always remain poor. You may withhold even the knowledge of how to read God's word and learn the way from earth to glory and then taunt us for our ignorance, but we would remind you that there is plenty of room at the top, and we are climbing."In closing, White said:

"I want to submit a brief recipe for the solution of the so-called American negro problem. He asks no special favors, but simply demands that he be given the same chance for existence, for earning a livelihood, for raising himself in the scales of manhood and womanhood that are accorded to kindred nationalities. Treat him as a man; go into his home and learn of his social conditions; learn of his cares, his troubles, and his hopes for the future; gain his confidence; open the doors of industry to him; let the word 'negro,' 'colored,' and 'black' be stricken from all the organizations enumerated in the federation of labor [a reference to labor unions that excluded blacks]."Help him to overcome his weaknesses, punish the crime-committing class by the courts of the land, measure the standard of the race by its best material, cease to mold prejudicial and unjust public sentiment against him, and my word for it, he will learn to support, hold up the hands of, and join in with that political party, that institution, whether secular or religious, in every community where he lives, which is destined to do the greatest good for the greatest number. Obliterate race hatred, party prejudice, and help us to achieve nobler ends, greater results, and become more satisfactory citizens to our brother in white."This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the negroes' temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, Phoenix-like, he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people—rising people, full of potential force."The Congressional Record says that White's speech closed to "loud applause." Whether it stirred much thought is unclear; the House turned smoothly to a discussion of whether to allow the newly invented oleomargarine to be labeled "butter."In March 1901, George White's term ended. In what must have been a bitter pill for him, he was replaced by the brother of a representative he had singled out in his farewell address as one of the House's most offensive "howlers" against African-American rights.The return of blacks to the House that White foresaw would not come until 1928, when Oscar De Priest was elected in Chicago. Not until 1978 would a Southern state again send a black to the House.