From a former manservant to a little-known Civil War veteran, meet five men who rose up from slavery to become part of the United States’ first generation of black congressmen.
Blanche K. Bruce
The son of an enslaved black woman and her white master, Blanche Bruce grew up a house servant on plantations in Virginia, Mississippi and Missouri. He had a privileged upbringing by slave standards and was permitted to study with a private tutor, but when the Civil War broke out, he seized his chance at freedom and fled to Kansas. Bruce later worked as a teacher and opened Missouri’s first school for black children before moving to Mississippi in the late-1860s. He arrived in the state with only 75 cents to his name, but within a few years, he was a successful land speculator and planter. His sharp mind and genteel demeanor also made him a rising star in the Mississippi Republican Party, leading to jobs as a sheriff, tax collector and county superintendent of education.
In 1874, the Mississippi legislature elected Bruce to the U.S. Senate, making him the second black senator in American history and the first to serve a full six-year term. He spent much of his tenure defending black Civil War veterans and fighting segregation, but also spoke out in support of Chinese immigrants and Native Americans. During an 1879 debate on the Chinese Exclusion Act, he became the first African American to preside over a Senate session. While the collapse of Reconstruction doomed Bruce to a lone term in the Senate, the former slave remained active in politics and later spent several years as register of the Treasury, a role that saw his signature appear on all the nation’s paper currency.
Robert Smalls’ journey from slave to U.S. Congressman began with a famous act of defiance. In 1862, the South Carolina native was serving as a wheelman aboard a Confederate steamer called the Planter. When the white crew took an unsanctioned shore leave in Charleston in the early morning hours of May 13, Smalls and several other slaves hijacked the ship, piloted it past Fort Sumter and surrendered it to a Union blockading squadron. Smalls went on to captain the Planter for the Navy. After the Civil War ended, he used his reward for capturing the ship to purchase his former master’s home in Beaufort, South Carolina.
In the late-1860s, Smalls parlayed his celebrity as the “hero of the Planter” into a political career. He helped organize South Carolina’s burgeoning Republican Party, and later served in the state legislature before winning a seat in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1875. As a congressman, Smalls promoted black voting rights and introduced legislation that would have desegregated the U.S. military, but his five terms were often hindered by political sabotage and election fraud by white supremacist forces. After losing his final congressional race in 1886, he returned to South Carolina and worked as a U.S. customs collector.
Though born into bondage, South Carolina’s Joseph Rainey won his freedom as a boy after his parents bought their family out of slavery. He went on to a prosperous career as a Charleston barber, but in 1861, the Confederacy pressed him into service as a trench digger and ship’s cook. Not willing to endure slavery a second time, Rainey fled to Bermuda, where he laid low and continued working as barber until the Civil War ended. Upon returning home in 1866, he reinvented himself as a politician and served in the South Carolina state senate. Just four years later, he won a special election and became the first black member of the U.S. House of Representatives.
In Congress, Rainey established himself as a moderate Republican willing to make compromises in the fight for equality. He supported amnesty for former Confederates and even advocated a Jim Crow-style poll tax to fund education, but he also urged the federal government to deploy the army against the Ku Klux Klan and other white supremacist groups. Criticizing the Klan put Rainey’s life at risk. He once received an anonymous letter warning him to “prepare to meet your God,” but despite the looming threat of assassination, he remained in the Congress for five consecutive terms—longer than any black politician during Reconstruction.
John R. Lynch
The son of an Irish overseer and an enslaved mother, John Lynch spent his first formative years toiling on a Mississippi plantation before being freed by Union troops during the Civil War. He later worked as a waiter, cook and the manager of a photography studio by day, but used his nights to attend grammar school and read books on law. Lynch soon became active in politics, and in 1869 he was appointed justice of the peace and elected to the Mississippi House of Representatives. His remarkable rise continued in 1872, when he defeated a judge to win a seat in Congress at the age of just 26.
Despite his youth, Lynch proved to be a savvy politician and eloquent speaker. He spoke in favor of the Civil Rights Bill of 1875, and offered harsh criticisms of white supremacist groups, which he argued achieved their political aims “by the power of the bullet and not by the power of the ballot.” Lynch served three nonconsecutive terms in the House before being swept from office after the collapse of Reconstruction. His resume later included stints as a lawyer, a Republican National Committee member and a U.S. army major during the Spanish-American War. Before his death in 1939, he also penned several books and articles that highlighted the accomplishments of black politicians during Reconstruction.
Until as recently as 1993, a onetime slave named Josiah Walls was the only black congressman in Florida history. Born in Virginia in 1842, Walls came of age on a plantation before being conscripted by the Confederacy during the Civil War. He was later captured and set free by Union forces, and after a brief period as a student in Philadelphia, he joined a regiment of United States Colored Troops and served in Union-occupied Florida. Walls chose to stay in the Sunshine State after being mustered out of service in 1865. He soon prospered as a teacher and lumber worker, and by 1868 he was wealthy enough to buy a plantation that had once belonged to a Confederate general.
Walls’ early political career included terms in both houses of the Florida state legislature. In 1870, he squared off against an ex-Confederate named Silas Niblack in a race for a U.S. House of Representatives seat. The campaign was notoriously heated. Walls only narrowly dodged an assassin’s bullet during a rally, and both sides complained of voter intimidation and ballot irregularities. Even after Walls eked out a victory, Niblack contested the results and had them overturned. Walls soon won a different seat in Congress, however, and went on to serve a total of three terms, during which he advocated for infrastructure improvements and federal programs to provide blacks equal access to education. He left office in 1877 as Florida’s most prominent African American politician, and later returned to the state legislature before devoting himself to farming.
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