Combating Racism – Understanding History – Did you Know?

House Chamber - 1800's and Current Day

Two weeks ago, to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the insurrection on the U.S. Capitol, I wrote about the history of this symbol of our democracy and how it was built and designed by men who believed in White supremacy. I focused on the Statue of Freedom, built by enslaved Phillip Reid.

In addition to having been designed and built by White supremacists, many of those elected to this original sacred hall were slave holders. A recent article in The Washington Post, entitled “Enslavers in Congress Shaped our Nation’s History,” listed the more than 1,700 people who served in Congress in the 18th, 19th and even 20th century who owned human beings at some time in their lives. The article shouldn’t have shocked me, but it did.

The database created by The Post journalists show that enslavers in Congress represented 37 states, not just in the South but in every state in New England, much of the Midwest, and many Western states. The full list of enslavers in Congress, amassed in The Washington Post, can be found here.

Here are just a few of the “takeaways” I gained from reading The Washington Post article:

  1. Until now, there has never been a comprehensive list of slave-holding members of Congress.
  2. With slave holders making our laws, it has been difficult as a country to take full responsibility for the institution of slavery and what it has done to America. The legacies of these lawmakers have continued to today.
  3. Many of the lawmakers who were enslavers have statues, monuments, and plaques honoring them, with almost no acknowledgment that they held slaves. Here in the nation’s capital, near where I live, Congressman John Peter Van Ness of New York has a D.C. elementary school, a street, and a Metro station named in his honor. Senator Francis Preston Blair, Jr. of Missouri, who has a statue in the Capitol and a homeless shelter named after him in Northeast Washington, was an enslaver who opposed allowing Black citizens to vote after the Civil War. (The guesthouse across from the White House is named for his father, who was not a lawmaker, but was also a slave owner.)
  4. Delaware’s two senators, Willard Saulsbury, Sr. and George Read Riddle, both enslavers, voted against the 13th Amendment ending slavery.
  5. More than 80% of the men Maryland and Virginia sent to Congress between 1789 and 1859 were slaveholders.
  6. Many of the current day struggles faced by Blacks in this country (e.g., the vast racial wealth gap, which I wrote about and which you can read about here) spring directly from the history of enslavers in our legislature.
  7. Recognizing this aspect of our history is critical to understanding racism in America today.

The end result of having slaveholders in Congress, making and passing laws, has been insensitivity to and disdain for Black Americans. This has contributed to the ongoing racism in our country.

I decided to do my own research and see how many Black Americans have served in Congress since our founding. I was surprised to learn:

1. During the Reconstruction and early Post-Reconstruction era (1870-1887) eleven Black former slaves were elected to the House of Representatives from states including North and South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, Florida and Mississippi. To see a listing of the Black Americans who have served in the House of Representatives through today, click here.

2. To date there have been only eleven Black individuals elected to the U.S. Senate. The first was Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels of Mississippi, born to free parents, who was elected in 1879. Despite efforts by Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky and Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware to block his admission to the Senate, Revels was the first Black American to serve in the Senate. Mississippi also elected Blanche Bruce, a former slave, in 1875.Another 92 years would pass before another Black was elected to the U.S. Senate. The listing of the eleven Black Senators follows below.

The conditions faced by Black Americans today are driven and shaped by the White men and women who have exercised power and influence in the institutions, and especially the U.S. Congress, that govern this nation. Learning about this history can give a full and honest view of the legislature that has impacted Black Americans through our history. Hopefully this can begin to end the racism that has plagued us.

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