This month will be remembered for the arrival of an African-American at the pinnacle of American political power when Barack Obama is sworn in as president on the Capitol's steps. But it also is the anniversary of another, less happy political milestone on Capitol Hill: the farewell of the last member of the first generation of black congressmen.
On Jan. 29, 1901, Rep. George H. White took the floor of the House of Representatives during a debate on a farm bill. He talked briefly about the legislation then turned to matters nearer his heart. "I want to enter a plea for the colored man, the colored woman, the colored boy, and the colored girl of this country," White intoned. "I would not thus digress...but for the constant and the persistent efforts of certain gentlemen upon this floor to mold and rivet public sentiment against us as a people and to lose no opportunity to hold up the unfortunate few who commit crimes and depredations and lead lives of infamy and shame, as other races do, as fair specimens of representatives of the entire colored race."
Between the end of the Civil War and 1901, two blacks served in the U.S. Senate and 20 in the House. All were from the South, most from the Deep South, where blacks comprised a majority, or nearly a majority, of the population (South Carolina, Mississippi, and Alabama).
By the turn of the century, White was the only one left on Capitol Hill. He was the last of the African-American congressmen of the Reconstruction era.
And after his departure in March 1901, when his term ended, it would be more than 25 years before an African-American again took a seat in the House, more than 75 years before one was elected from a Southern state. Though his prediction that blacks would again be elected to Congress came to pass, he didn't live to see it.
Like White, all the black congressmen in the early days were Republicans; the Republicans were the party of Lincoln and emancipation, while the Democrats were, at least in the eyes of their opponents, the party of rebellion and slavery. Some had been slaves; others had been free. Some rose through awesome courage and tenacity. Others could better be characterized as cunning and opportunistic—not surprisingly, because these were the defining characteristics of the politics of the time.
In the closing decades of the 19th century, Democrats dedicated to white supremacy gained control of the legislatures of Southern states and passed measures designed to disenfranchise blacks. The ranks of black congressmen thinned. The fractured politics in North Carolina provided George White a political space, as the class-based Populist Party insurgency led many hard-pressed white farmers to desert the Democrats and join with the Republicans. But White's time ran out, too; the Populist moment passed, and many Populists returned to their old political affiliations; some white Republicans resigned themselves to the Democratic resurgence; and North Carolina adopted measures to essentially eliminate the black vote.
Bowing to the new reality, White announced in 1900 that he would not seek re-election, and in January 1901, he stood before the House as a lame duck.
In entering his "plea for the colored man," White decried the "convenient howl" of the threat of "negro domination" of Southern states' governments and the resulting manipulation of politics to disenfranchise blacks. "It is an undisputed fact that the negro vote" in the South has "been effectively suppressed, either one way or the other—in some instances by constitutional amendment and state legislation, in others by cold-blooded fraud and intimidation."
He knew the fraud well; in one township in his district, he told his colleagues, there were 539 registered voters, but in the most recent election, there had been 990 votes counted for the Democratic candidate, 41 for the Republican. He also knew something about "cold-blooded intimation": the 1898 "Wilmington Riot"—essentially a coup against a city administration that included black and white officials—had left at least 22 blacks dead and sent an unforgettable message that African-Americans in his home state could not safely insist on their rights.