Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen
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But these men faced astounding odds. They were belittled as corrupt and inadequate by their white political opponents, who used legislative trickery, libel, bribery, and the brutal intimidation of their constituents to rob them of their base of support. Despite their status as congressmen, they were made to endure the worst humiliations of racial prejudice. And they have been largely forgotten—often neglected or maligned by standard histories of the period.
In this beautifully written book, Philip Dray reclaims their story. Drawing on archival documents, contemporary news accounts, and congressional records, he shows how the efforts of black Americans revealed their political perceptiveness and readiness to serve as voters, citizens, and elected officials.
We meet men like the war hero Robert Smalls of South Carolina (who had stolen a Confederate vessel and delivered it to the Union navy), Robert Brown Elliott (who bested the former vice president of the Confederacy in a stormy debate on the House floor), and the distinguished former slave Blanche K. Bruce (who was said to possess “the manners of a Chesterfield”). As Dray demonstrates, these men were eloquent, creative, and often effective representatives who, as support for Reconstruction faded, were undone by the forces of Southern reaction and Northern indifference.
In a grand narrative that traces the promising yet tragic arc of Reconstruction, Dray follows these black representatives’ struggles, from the Emancipation Proclamation to the onset of Jim Crow, as they fought for social justice and helped realize the promise of a new nation.
and collected the fare politely and turned to me and said, "Say, have you a ticket?" and I said "No, but here is the money." And he said, "Go downstairs, or I will put you off at Doboy."...I went ashore because I was afraid, from the way he spoke to me, that he would put me off, and having my nephew I was afraid one or the other of us would fall overboard. The master of the steamboat later insisted that Green had been unruly and that when she went ashore at Doboy, she continued to holler at
riot there. "It is bad enough that North Carolina should have the only nigger Congressman," the Raleigh News and Observer complained of White—let alone one who would foster such foolish ideas for federal legislation. It was particularly annoying that an official representative of the state of North Carolina had dared utter, in Congress, secret truths about the white South's sexual peccadilloes and, furthermore, that black people in the gallery had applauded his words. "As the blatant mouthing of
Sterling, Trouble They Seen, p. 374. A national outcry: See Les Benedict, p. 55. "Never since the birth of the republic": Philadelphia Inquirer, Mar. 17, 1870. [>] "As the recognized representative": Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 2nd sess., Mar. 16, 1870, pp. 1986–88. "In receiving him in exchange for Jefferson Davis": New York Tribune, Mar. 17, 1870. An unsubstantiated rumor circulated among Democrats, stating that Charles Sumner had ghost-written Revels's speech. Revels was apparently in
"running around molasses barrels or stealing cotton." One delegate stated that he'd seen, that very morning, "some eighteen colored children standing before the door of the Guard House ... If those little boys and girls were at school, they would not have been arrested." The version of Smalls's resolution that ultimately passed provided that all children attend school for a minimum of twenty-four months from age six to sixteen and that each school district keep at least one school open for six
although it did devote several columns to Stephens's remarks. Elliott's speech was instantly immortalized by a popular engraving titled "The Shackle Broken—by the Genius of Freedom." Its several panels reproduced images suggested by Elliott's words—colored troops in combat; Lincoln and Sumner on pedestals; Sumner proclaiming "Equality of rights is the first of rights"; and a representation of a cozy black homestead, captioned "American slave labor is of the past—Free labor is of the present—We