The Third Black Sen. Since When?

Barack Obama would be the third “since Reconstruction.’ What gives?

Barack Obama, the Senate candidate who delivered last night’s keynote address at the Democratic convention, is often described as an odds-on favorite to become the third black senator “since Reconstruction.” That phrase seems to imply that there was an abundance of black senators before or during Reconstruction. Was that really the case?

Not an abundance, for sure, but two African-Americans were elected to the Senate during the post-Civil War occupation of the South. The first was Hiram Rhoades Revels, a Mississippi state senator who was selected in 1870 to fill the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who’d left to become president of the defunct Confederacy. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than a popular vote. And at that time, the Mississippi state legislature included a handful of African-Americans and was dominated by Republican carpetbaggers, northerners who’d come South to get involved in politics. Their election of Revels to Davis’ former Senate seat was a symbol of the Republicans’ desire for the postbellum South to accept the tolerant precepts of the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments.

Since he was only elected to serve out the remainder of Davis’ term, Revels spent just one year in the Senate; he would go on to become the president of Alcorn College (now Alcorn State University). The first African-American to serve a full Senate term was also from Mississippi: Blanche K. Bruce. A sheriff, tax collector, and education official from the Delta, Bruce was elected by the legislature in 1874. At his swearing-in ceremony, the state’s white senior senator refused to accompany his new colleague to the podium. Instead, Bruce was accompanied by Roscoe Conkling of New York; the two became fast friends, and Bruce later named his only child after Conkling.

Bruce performed admirably in the Senate, heading a landmark investigation into banking fraud and advocating railroad construction. But the Republicans lost control of the Mississippi legislature in the elections of 1875, a few months before Reconstruction officially ended in the state; ironically, Hiram Rhoades Revels was among those who campaigned against the carpetbaggers, whom he believed to be woefully corrupt. When Bruce’s term expired in 1880, the new Democrat-dominated legislature replaced him with a white senator, James Z. George. The next African-American to serve in the Senate was Edward W. Brooke, a Massachusetts Republican, who was elected in 1966.

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Explainer thanks Daniel Strauss for asking the question.