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Black Americans in Congress

  Joseph RaineyOil on Canvas, Simmie Knox, 2005, Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives

The first African-American Member of Congress was elected nearly 100 years after the United States became a nation. Slavery had only been illegal for five years in the American South when Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina and Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi were elected to office in 1870. In fact, the congressional districts they served had been represented by slave owners only 10 years earlier. The early African-American Members argued passionately for legislation promoting racial equality, but it would still be many years before they would be viewed as equals.

In 1887, African Americans disappeared from Congress. Jim Crow laws and racism made being elected to office difficult. For nearly 30 years, no African Americans served in Congress. The election of Oscar DePriest, of Illinois, to the House of Representatives in 1928 brought a renewed hope to African Americans struggling for equality in America. However, the number of African-American Representatives and Senators remained low for several more years. The 1970s saw a huge increase in the number of Black Americans in Congress, due to the efforts of the earlier generations as well as the civil rights movements of 1960s. Not only did the number of African Americans in Congress grow as time passed, but the number of African Americans in leadership positions also increased. In 1971, 13 African-American Members founded the Congressional Black Caucus to advocate issues important to all Black Americans.

At the start of the 110th Congress in 2007, 22 of the 43 African Americans in Congress—51 percent—held committee leadership positions.

African Americans have represented districts in Congress in 25 states—is yours one?

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