Representative Roll Call
On the House side, more members and memories
When Charles B. Rangel took the reins of the House of Representatives' Ways and Means Committee this year, he arguably became the most powerful black American to serve in the history of that chamber. But in the House, where 112 blacks have held office since 1870, the competition for that claim could be fierce.
First in line would be Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina. Born in 1832, Rainey had worked as a barber until the Confederacy drafted him in 1861 to work on the fortifications in Charleston, S.C. In 1862, he and his wife escaped to Bermuda. After the war, he returned to South Carolina and swiftly emerged as a political leader. On Dec. 12, 1870, Rainey was sworn into office as the first black American member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
He held office until March 1879, his tenure there the longest of any of the 20 black representatives who served between 1870 and 1901. While there, Rainey was a passionate voice for southern blacks who already were watching the promise of liberty fade away. Addressing the House in 1871 on the rise of the Ku Klux Klan, Rainey said, "If we stand with folded arms and idle hands, while the cries of our oppressed brethren sound in our ears, what will it be but a proof to all men that we are utterly unfit for our glorious mission, unworthy of our noble privileges, as the greatest of republics, the champions of freedom for all men?"
But by 1901, there were no longer any black members of the House, a drought that lasted nearly three decades. Oscar S. DePriest, a real-estate broker from Chicago's South Side, broke the color barrier again when he was elected in 1928. But the most prominent black representative in the years before the civil rights movement was the dynamic Adam Clayton Powell Jr. from New York's Harlem, who served from 1945 through 1971. Powell was an expert politician and a champion of black rights, but his career ended in scandal as he was accused of misappropriating funds from the House committee he chaired.
In 1968, 10 black representatives were elected, doubling the previous session's number. Sensing momentum, the lawmakers formed the Congressional Black Caucus. One star among the caucus's founding members was Shirley A. Chisholm. Born in Brooklyn in 1924 to immigrant parents from the West Indies, Chisholm worked as a nursery school teacher before becoming active in politics. When she was elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968, she became the first black woman to hold that office. She was a vocal champion for both minorities and women, advocating their constitutional rights. "There were no black founding fathers, there were no founding mothers-a great pity, on both counts," she once said. In 1972, Chisholm ran a groundbreaking campaign for the Democratic presidential nomination, earning 152 delegate votes. She lost to George McGovern, but it's hard not to see her influence in the 2008 presidential hopes of Hillary Rodham Clinton and Barack Obama.
This story appears in the February 19, 2007 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.