The Obamas of yesteryear

January 31, 2008|By Lisa Goodnight

This year, we will celebrate Black History Month facing the very real possibility of a black man being elected president. It is a very different America than in the late 1800s, when the first group of black politicians arrived in Washington.

Sen. Barack Obama's achievements are impressive, even for 2008. Now consider what it would have been like for a black man to dare to claim a bit of political power more than 100 years ago. The names of those who did are well worth remembering.

Thankfully, those names have not been completely forgotten. Today, they show up in places ranging from a Texas elementary school to a condominium building in Baltimore. Still, it's encouraging to hear about new projects involving these trailblazers because they deserve more attention. Thanks to such projects, their names will be known to future generations as well.

In all, 22 black politicians served in Washington between 1870 and 1901. There are plans to acknowledge their contributions at the still-incomplete Capitol Visitor Center and the U.S. Postal Service. It will be interesting to see how these institutions highlight these early black leaders.

Here in Baltimore, there is a midrise condo at 104 W. Madison St. called The Revels, after Hiram Revels, the nation's first black senator. In 1870, Mr. Revels took the seat held by the former president of the Confederacy and served a little more than a year. Mr. Revels had been pastor of a church in the Madison Street building from 1858 to 1863. He also assisted in recruiting two regiments of African-American troops in Maryland.

Another opportunity to learn about the period presented itself during the final months of 2007 when the Baltimore World Trade Center had an exhibit on Robert Smalls, a former slave and Civil War hero who went to Congress in 1875. Washington, D.C., filmmaker Adrena Ifill, who released a documentary about him, plans to chronicle other "Negro" or "colored" congressman and senators, as they were known then. She calls them "America's other Founding Fathers." I see them as the Barack Obamas of yesteryear.

However, their racist opponents derided them as ignorant, or worse. About half had been slaves, but they persevered and got educated. They fought for their constituents and spoke out on various issues - from limiting the presidential term to seeking financial relief for Cherokee Indians who had resettled in the West, to urging passage of civil rights legislation.

Those politicians also faced criticism from black people. A number of them were seen as too lenient toward ex-Confederates.

Some ended up like Josiah T. Walls, the Florida congressman credited with securing the land for what is now Florida A&M University. He died "in complete obscurity. No obituary was published in any Florida newspaper," according to Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders During Reconstruction.

Then there was Mississippi Sen. Blanche Bruce. There were 32 pallbearers at his funeral. While he was biracial (white father, black mother), Mr. Bruce is commonly referred to as the first black man elected to a full Senate term.

The 2002 unveiling of his portrait, which hangs near the public Senate Chamber gallery, provided interesting material for Mr. Bruce's biography. In The Senator and the Socialite: The True Story of America's First Black Dynasty, Lawrence Otis Graham explained that some of Mr. Bruce's African-American descendants didn't attend the ceremony because of apathy, while some of the Caucasian descendants stayed away because they didn't want to be racially "outed."

Embracing the stories of these accomplished men makes sense at any time. They are inspiring and instructive, and they provide context as this historic presidential campaign continues to unfold.

Lisa Goodnight is a former reporter for The Record in Hackensack, N.J. Her e-mail is lisagoodnight@hotmail.com.

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