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Jul 29, 2004 5:20 am


How Many Black Senators Have There Been?



Brendan I. Koerner, at Slate.com (July 28, 2004):

Barack Obama, the Senate candidate who delivered last night's keynote address at the Democratic convention, is often described as an odds-on favorite to become the third black senator "since Reconstruction." That phrase seems to imply that there was an abundance of black senators before or during Reconstruction. Was that really the case?

Not an abundance, for sure, but two African-Americans were elected to the Senate during the post-Civil War occupation of the South. The first was Hiram Rhoades Revels, a Mississippi state senator who was selected in 1870 to fill the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who'd left to become president of the defunct Confederacy. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than a popular vote. And at that time, the Mississippi state legislature included a handful of African-Americans and was dominated by Republican carpetbaggers, northerners who'd come South to get involved in politics. Their election of Revels to Davis' former Senate seat was a symbol of the Republicans' desire for the postbellum South to accept the tolerant precepts of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Since he was only elected to serve out the remainder of Davis' term, Revels spent just one year in the Senate; he would go on to become the president of Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University). The first African-American to serve a full Senate term was also from Mississippi: Blanche K. Bruce. A sheriff, tax collector, and education official from the Delta, Bruce was elected by the legislature in 1874. At his swearing-in ceremony, the state's white senior senator refused to accompany his new colleague to the podium. Instead, Bruce was accompanied by Roscoe Conkling of New York; the two became fast friends, and Bruce later named his only child after Conkling.

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