"They just didn't put down the hoe and walk up to Capitol Hill."
Lillian E. Grandy was pointing to photographs showing the early black congressmen who held seats in the United States Congress in the turbulent years of the Reconstruction. In photos assembled for a new exhibit at the National Archives, these pioneer black legislators are men with the trappings of substantial accomplishment -- the gold watch chain across the vest, the well-tailored suit, and, often, the comfortable girth.
Grandy was the coordinator of the new exhibit. "The Long Road Up the Hill: Blacks in the United States Congress, 1870-1981." It opens to the public today in time to catch Black History Month and will be on view indefinitely.
"I wanted to do this show because I remembered in horror what I learned in school in Nashville as a child," Grandy explained. "I remembered the cartoons that portrayed the early black congressmen as little better than animals. I was embarrassed. They were not ignorant field hands. They were teachers, and farmers like their white colleagues."
It was in 1870 that Hiram Revels, the first black congressman, filled the Senate seat formerly held by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. sFrom 1870 to 1901, 22 blacks, all from southern states, served in Congress. In that latter year, George White was the last black left in Congress, and he left with these words:
"This, Mr. Chairman, is perhaps the Negro's temporary farewell to the American Congress; but let me say, phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heartbroken, bruised, and bleeding, but God-fearing people, faithful, industrious, loyal people -- rising people, full of force."
White's words were to be prophetic. The "Long Road Up the Hill" traces how discriminatory laws and local customs discouraged black voters so that no black was elected to Congress from 1901 to 1929. But since then, the influence of black legislators has grown steadily.
Today there are 18 black legislators in the Congress. The exhibit carries the story through to the present day and the black Caucus on the Hill. The Caucus supplied newsletters and communications with constituents not yet entered in the Archives, Grandy said.
Documents from the nation's files show that many of the Reconstruction days came to Washington with credentials of experience and public service. There is the handwritten resignation of Robert Smalls from the state legislature of Beauford County, S.C.
They had to be men of courage because their elections often were challenged, and they were met with hostility.
"Look at this scene from 1890 when a black representative from the state of Virginia was being sworn in. All the members of the Democratic party walked out," Dr. Caryl Marsh, curator of exhibits at the Archives, pointed out.
All the early black congressmen were Republicans.It wasn't until 1929 that Oscar DePriest came to Washington from Illinois as the first black Democratic congressman.
In bringing the "long road up the Hill" to present day, the faces are those seen on newspaper pages over the last decade -- Augustus Hawkins, coauthor of the Humphrey-Hawkins full-employment bill, Barbara Jordan, Adam Clayton Powell, Walter Fauntroy. Cardiss Collins, Bill Clay, William Dawson, Charles Diggs, and many others up to the four new black congressmen sworn into office this session.
As to the controversy surrounding the careers of some congressmen such as Powell and Diggs, Grandy said that she decided that this was not subject material within the scope of the exhibit.
"I wanted to be upbeat," she emphasized. "There is more than enough good to be said."