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Cory Booker and the First Black Senators

When the brilliant Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Stanford honors student, Yale Law School graduate and a former Rhodes Scholar, is sworn in as New Jersey’s next U.S. senator on Oct. 31 (a historical event that should be widely heralded as a triumph of vision and one candidate’s unwavering and consistent moral commitment to public service), it will mark only the second time in history that two African Americans will be serving in the Senate at the same time. This milestone, remarkably, was only reached earlier this year after Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina elevated Rep. Tim Scott to Jim DeMint’s old seat and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts appointed his former chief of staff, William “Mo” Cowan, to fill the vacancy left by current Secretary of State John Kerry until a special election could be held in June.

While Sens. Cowan and Scott only had a few months together in office, Booker and Scott will share the same chamber (at least) through 2014 when both must run again — Scott, for the first time, statewide. In both cases, Scott, a Tea Party favorite and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, has been matched up with a Northeastern Democrat, one who has already officiated same-sex weddings in his state. What a gesture it would be for them to sit together at President Obama’s next State of the Union address in January. While their respective parties may continue to be divided over how best to represent the “1 percent” and the “99 percent,” the Senate is now 2 percent black. In a nation that has twice elected a black man to its highest office, it is news at least worth noting — and, yes, for many, celebrating.

When Eric Foner of Columbia University, our leading historian on Reconstruction and an advisor on my current PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross, emailed me about these amazing facts the morning after Booker’s victory, I knew I wanted to find out more about our early black senators. From working on the series, I was aware of the nearly 90-year gap separating the nation’s first two, Hiram R. Revels (1870-1871) and Blanche K. Bruce (1875-1881), and the third, Edward W. Brooke (1967-1979), but I had no idea I would discover through research that Revels’ swearing in would be delayed by the dead hand of the worst decision in Supreme Court history, or that before “Jim Crow” — in fact, just a decade after the Civil War — two other black men would almost achieve what Scott and Cowan and Scott and Booker have this year.

That’s right!  It could — and, as we’ll see in next week’s column, should — have happened 138 years ago on March 5, 1875, two years before Reconstruction ended. This was when the Senate moved to swear in the (second) black man whom Mississippi had sent to Washington, Blanche K. Bruce, even as it continued refusing to seat the first from Louisiana, P.S.B. Pinchback, a Civil War veteran and former state governor who’d been haunting the halls of Congress for two long years waiting for an answer.

Before deciding on the fate of these two individual black men, however, the senators in power after the Civil War had to settle an even more fundamental question when it came to seating Revels in 1870: Was it too soon, according to the Constitution, for any black man to be legally entitled to serve?

Please join me this week and next as I journey back to Reconstruction days in search of Cory Booker’s oldest “ancestor” in the Senate and of the true — and fullest — significance of the 2 percent glass ceiling he has helped Sen. Tim Scott break for the second time this year. With Election Day on deck, a week from Tuesday, it’s the perfect time for us to recall how precious a right voting is, and how much those who went before sacrificed for us to exercise it.

Hiram R. Revels

Jefferson Davis looking over his shoulder at Hiram Revels in U.S. Senate (Thomas Nast, 1870;

Jefferson Davis looking over his shoulder at Hiram Revels in U.S. Senate (Thomas Nast, 1870;

Article I, Section 3, of the U.S. Constitution spells out the qualifications for becoming a senator by telling us who can’t: “No Person shall be a Senator who shall not have attained to the Age of thirty Years, and been nine Years a Citizen of the United States, and who shall not, when elected, be an Inhabitant of that State for which he shall be chosen.”

In late February 1870, there was no question whether the first black senator-elect in American history — and one of the first Mississippi had sent to Washington since the Civil War — was old enough or resided in the Magnolia State. Hiram Rhodes Revels, 42 (at a time when the life expectancy of an average American man was mid-40s), had been born free to mixed-race parents in North Carolina in 1827, before even Andrew Jackson was president. After receiving seminary training in Indiana and Ohio, Revels had traveled the country as an ordained minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and eventually pastored churches in St. Louis and Baltimore. He had studied at Knox College in Illinois. He had helped organize and minister to black troops during the late rebellion. Following the emancipation, he had opened churches and schools for the freed people of Mississippi and served as an alderman and state senator. He impressed many political observers with his oratorical gifts and moderate temperament.

So, no, there was no question about Sen.-elect Revel’s age or his residency — or about the powerful new voting bloc behind him. As W.E.B. Du Bois detailed in his classic 1935 study,Black Reconstruction in America, 1860-1880, Mississippi already had a majority-black population before the Civil War; and, with its slaves now free and under the protection of federal troops, 60,137 blacks registered for the vote in 1867 compared to 46,636 whites.

Blacks also comprised the majority in 32 of Mississippi’s counties, and in the state’s first Reconstruction legislature, convened in 1870, they netted 40 seats, though, as Du Bois points out, based on their numbers, it should have been more. (Until the 17th Amendment was ratified in 1913, state legislatures, not voters, decided who would represent them in the U.S. Senate.) What Eric Foner has called “America’s Unfinished Revolution” was just beginning, and the former slaves of the Deep South were on the verge of reinventing government — they thought, forever.

‘Dred Scott’ Redux

This was raw political power that the Republican Party was eager to embrace and Southern Democrats feared. (Remember, Abraham Lincoln had only been dead five years.) So by the time Revels reached the senate on Feb. 23, 1870 — and so soon after Appomattox — he was showered by applause from the gallery, but met resistance from the Democrats on the floor. Particularly galling to them was the fact that Revels was about to inhabit a seat like the one that their former colleague, Jefferson Davis, had resigned en route to becoming president of the Confederacy in 1861. When Davis was still in the Senate, the Supreme Court’s ruling in Dred Scott v. Sanford (1857) had still been good law, they knew, and it had gone out of its way to reject blacks’ claims to U.S. citizenship — the critical third test any incoming senator had to pass.

In staring down Revels, the Democrats’ strategy wasn’t to rake over his birth certificate (an absurd tactic left to our own time) but to proceed as though nothing had happened in between 1857 and the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. (Both of those measures had clarified blacks’ status as citizens, blunting Dred Scott’s force as precedent — the 14th Amendment as a matter of constitutional law.) As a result, by the Democrats’ calculus, Revels, despite having been born a free man in the South and having voted years before in Ohio, could only claim to have been a U.S. citizen for two — and at most four — years, well short of the Constitutional command of nine. It was a rule-based argument, as rigid as it was reactionary. It twisted the founders’ original concerns over allowing foreign agents into the Senate into a bar on all native-born blacks until 1875 or 1877, thus buying the Democrats more time to regain their historical advantages in the South.

 So, instead of Sen.-elect Revels taking the oath of office upon his arrival in Washington, he had to suffer two more days of debate among his potential colleagues over his credentials and the reach of Dred Scott. While the Democrats’ defense was constitutionally based, as Richard Primus brilliantly recounts in his April 2006 Harvard Law Review article, “The Riddle of Hiram Revels” (pdf), there were occasional slips that indicated just what animus — at least for some — lurked behind it. “Outside the chamber,” Primus writes, “Democratic newspapers set a vicious tone: the New York World decried the arrival of a ‘lineal descendant of an ourang-otang in Congress’ and added that Revels had ‘hands resembling claws.’ The discourse inside the chamber was almost equally pointed.”

Primus continues, “Senator [Garrett] Davis [of Kentucky] asked rhetorically whether any of the Republicans present who claimed willingness to accept Revels as a colleague ‘has made sedulous court to any one fair black swan, and offered to take her singing to the altar of Hymen.’ ” Can you imagine a senator using such suggestive sexual language on the Senate floor today? (OK, maybe on Twitter.)

Foolishly drawn into the debate, some of Revels’ own supporters contorted themselves trying to work within the Democrats’ framework. Notably, one Republican senator, George Williams of Oregon, staked his vote on Revels’ mixed-race heritage (as Primus indicates, Revels was “called a quadroon, an octoroon, and a Croatan Indian as well as a negro” throughout his life). It was a material fact to Williams, perhaps because, as President Lincoln’s former attorney general Edward Bates had signaled in an opinion during the Civil War, just one drop of European blood was technically enough to exempt a black man from Dred Scott’s citizenship ban against African pure-bloods.

Fortunately for all future black elected officials (just think of the pernicious effects of such a rule, however short-lived, on those who could not claim any obvious white heritage), other Republicans in the caucus refused to play along. As Primus recalls, “Senator Simon Cameron of Pennsylvania [asked his colleagues,] ‘What do I care which pre-ponderates? He [Revels] is a man [and] his race, when the country was in its peril, came to the rescue … I admit that it somewhat shocks my old prejudices, as it probably does the prejudices of many more here, that one of the despised race should come here to be my equal; but I look upon it as the act of God.’ ”

The more decisive act for Republicans, as Cameron’s backhanded comments indicated, was the Civil War, which (hello!) in four years had claimed the lives of 750,000 Americans, rewriting the Constitution in blood. To Republicans, before the country had spoken through the Civil Rights Act or Reconstruction Amendments, Dred Scott had, effectively, been overturned by what Sen. James Nye of Nevada called “the mightiest uprising which the world has ever witnessed.”

Charles Sumner, the radical Republican senator from Massachusetts, understood the costs of that uprising, having shed his own blood beneath the cane of Preston Brooks in one of the most violent episodes in the lead-up to the war — right at his own Senate desk. And Sumner wasn’t about to concede any ground to Dred Scott, which, to him, had been “[b]orn a putrid corpse” as soon as it had left the late Chief Justice Taney’s pen. “The time has passed for argument,” Sumner thundered, as quoted in my book, Life Upon These Shores: Looking at African American History, 1513-2008 . “Nothing more need be said … ‘All men are created equal’ says the great Declaration; and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality. For a long time in word only, it now becomes a deed. For a long time a promise only, it now becomes a consummated achievement.”

 The Vote 

Whatever the merits — or genuineness — of their various arguments (Primus gives most the benefit of doubt, arguing they were “sufficiently principled to qualify as an exercise in interpreting the Constitution” with a view to larger historical stakes), the Senate nevertheless ended up voting on Revels along strict party lines: 48 Republicans for swearing him in, eight Democrats opposed. At 4:40 p.m. on Feb. 25, 1870, some 56 years before the first Black History Week was celebrated, black history was made in America when Sen. Revels pledged before Vice President Schuyler Colfax to uphold the Constitution.


Fifty of the 100 Amazing Facts will be published on The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross website. Read all 100 Facts on The Root.

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