On Nov. 3, 1868, John Willis Menard became the first black man elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. But Congress refused to seat him.
This week the Congressional Black Caucus is holding its annual legislative conference, where 49 lawmakers and hundreds of other luminaries and activists will discuss the critical issues facing African Americans in the age of Trump. Among the topics that will be dissected: a rise in racial animus and white supremacy.
Those subjects were familiar to Menard, who made history yet was denied what he’d earned because of his race.
Still, on Feb. 27, 1869, Menard became the first black man to deliver a speech on the floor of the U.S. Congress while Congress was in session.
“It was certainly not my intention at first to take any part in this case at all; but as I have been sent here by the votes of nearly 9,000 electors, I would feel myself recreant to the duty imposed upon me if I did not defend their rights on the floor.”
Menard requested he be heard on the merits of his case and not his race.
Menard had won 64 percent of the vote in a special election in Louisiana to take the seat of James Mann, who had died in office. But Menard’s opponent, a white man named Caleb S. Hunt, protested Menard’s right to be seated in Congress, according to House archives.
Both Menard and Hunt were given permission to address Congress. Only Menard took up the offer to make his case before the House.
“I wish it to be well understood, before I go further that in the disposition of this case I do not expect, nor do I ask, that there shall be any favor shown me on account of my race, or the former condition of that race.”
Despite his eloquence, Congress refused to admit Menard.
James A. Garfield, the future president who was then a member of Congress, made a motion, saying, “It was too early to admit a Negro to the U.S. Congress, and that the seat be declared vacant, and the salary of $5,000″ saved.
The seat was left vacant during the remainder of the 40th Congress.
In March, the Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture and the Library of Congress announced the joint purchase of an album that contained 44 rare photographs, including a portrait of a young Harriet Tubman and the only known photograph of Menard.
The photos were contained in an album owned by Emily Howland, a Quaker school teacher who taught at a Freedman’s Bureau school in Arlington.
Before Menard was elected, John M. Langston had been one of the first black men elected to a public office in the United States, according to House history. Langston was elected in 1855 — 10 years before the end of the Civil War — to become clerk of the township of Brownhelm, Ohio.
From 1868 to 1898, 22 black men were elected to Congress, including two to the U.S. Senate. After the passage of the 15th Amendment, which granted black men the right to vote and was ratified Feb. 3, 1870, thousands of black men were elected to public offices across the South.
In 1870, Joseph H. Rainey, a Republican from South Carolina, became the first black man to be seated in the House.
Mississippi became the first state to send a black man to the U.S. Senate. Hiram Rhodes Revels served in the 41st Congress from 1870 to 1871, after he was selected by the Mississippi legislature to fill an empty seat, according to a Congressional Research Service report.
“Of particular significance is the fact that all the 17 African-American Members between 1870 and 1887 came from the new Reconstruction governments in the former Confederacy,” according to the Congressional Research Service.
But those numbers dropped precipitously as Jim Crow took root. When Congress convened on Dec. 5, 1887, it was the first time in almost 20 years when no black members were seated.
“All the men who stood up in awkward squads to be sworn in on Monday had white faces,” wrote a correspondent for the Philadelphia Record. “The negro is not only out of Congress, he is practically out of politics.”
Menard, a poet and abolitionist, who was born April 3, 1838, in the village of Kaskaskia, Ill., to parents of French Creole descent who were free.
Menard, who’d attended Iberia College in Ohio, worked as a newspaper editor in Baltimore and Washington, and as a clerk in the Department of Interior during the Civil War. President Abraham Lincoln sent Menard to what was then British Honduras in 1863 to study the establishment of a new colony for freed enslaved people, according to the Illinois Historic Preservation Agency.
After the Civil War ended, he went to Jamaica, where he married a Jamaican woman, Elizabeth, and fought for political rights for the British colony’s black people. Menard participated in the 1865 Morant Bay Rebellion in Jamaica. He was detained as a political prisoner and deported to the United States.
He eventually landed in New Orleans, where he established the newspaper “The Free South.”
After the refusal by Congress to seat him, Menard moved to Jacksonville, Fla., where in 1874, he was appointed to the state House of Representatives.
“He lost the next election,” the Illinois preservation agency reported, “at a time when there was widespread intimidation of voters at elections and white Democratic efforts to suppress black voting. That same year and again in 1877, Menard was elected as a Duval County justice of the peace.”
In 1879, Menard published the book of poetry “Lays in Summer Lands.”
“Of what avail is life why sigh and fret, When manly hopes are only born to fade? Although declared a man, a vassal yet By social caste a crime by heaven made!” Menard wrote in one of the poems.
Ten years after his book of poetry was published, Menard moved to Washington, where he’d been denied his rightful place in Congress. Instead, he worked as a clerk in the U.S. Census office.
Menard died in 1893. He is buried in Woodlawn Cemetery in Southeast Washington, where a huge stone also marks the plot for Blanche K. Bruce. Bruce, who was born a slave, was the second black man elected to the U.S. Senate — and the first to serve a full term.
Read more Retropolis: