Since the nation was founded, there have been five Black senators in the United States Senate—there were three Republicans and two Democrats. The Republicans were Hiram R. Revels and Blanche K. Bruce (Mississippi), and Edward W. Brooke (Massachusetts). Carol Moseley Braun and Barack H. Obama (Illinois) were Democrats.
They laid the foundation for the Black men and women who came after and followed their political footsteps. Today, they are known as the Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), the Conscience of the Congress, and one of them will be the 44th President of the United States, President-elect Barack Obama.
HIRAM R. REVELS
(1827 – 1901)
“The first Black to serve in the U.S. Senate-1870 to 1871.”
Hiram Rhodes Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1827 but unlike most Blacks, both his parents were free persons. Though at that time it was illegal to educate Black people, being born of free parents gave him certain privileges that were allowed only to Whites, including access to education. So early in life, he went to a school that was taught by a Black free woman. Later on, he attended a Quaker Seminary in Indiana, Darke County Seminary for Black students in Ohio and Knox College in Illinois (he was one of the few college-educated Black men in the country). Eventually, Revels was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. He traveled throughout the Midwest doing religious work and educating “Negroes” at the risk of his life. In 1853, he pastored his first church in St. Louis, Missouri, a state where free Blacks were forbidden to reside for fear that they would instigate uprisings. Despite his caution a year later, he was imprisoned a year for preaching to the Black community even though Whites did not attend his church. After his release, he continued his work and accepted a pastorate in Baltimore, Maryland.
During the Civil War, Revels recruited two Black regiments from Maryland for the Union Army and ended up serving as their chaplain in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. After the war, he continued his religious activities in churches in Kansas, Kentucky and Louisiana before settling in Natchez, Mississippi.
In 1868, Revels was elected alderman, his first elected position followed two years later, by his election to the state senate. When Mississippi had seceded from the Union and the Confederacy was subsequently defeated, two vacancies arose in the U.S. Senate. The state legislature wanted to elect a Black candidate for the shorter term, which it believed, would “weaken the color line prejudice” and in January 1870, it voted to elect Revels to fill the vacancy.
When Revels arrived in Washington, D.C., he was not able to present his credentials until Mississippi was officially readmitted to the Union. There were other challenges but they were resolved, and in February 1870, Revels became the first Black in the U.S. Senate. He served until March 1871 and returned to Mississippi where went on to serve as president of Alcorn University, an institution of higher learning for “Negroes.” He also continued working in the religious community becoming the editor of Southwestern Christian Advocate, an official AME publication.
Revels died in Aberdeen, Mississippi in 1901.
BLANCHE K. BRUCE
(1841 – 1898)
“He was the first Black man to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate-1875 to 1881.”
Though he was born a slave, Blanche Kelso Bruce rose to become the first Black man to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. He was born on a farm in Prince Edward County near Farmville, Virginia. His mother was a slave and his father, a slave-master. Despite his father’s status, Bruce was automatically labeled a slave due to his mother’s status which was the custom. His father legally freed him and allowed him to be educated with his White brother, his father’s “legitimate” son but Bruce still bore the mark of “illegitimacy” and was never treated equally as his father’s White children. Because of that “difference,” Bruce moved to Missouri and attempted to enlist in the Union Army during the Civil War but his application was rejected. He enrolled in Oberlin College to study for a Divinity degree but after two years he left due to financial constraints and went to work as a steamboat porter while waiting for more lucrative opportunities.
In 1864, Bruce moved to Missouri where he established a school for Blacks. During the Reconstruction Era, he moved to Floreyville, Mississippi, and rode the wave of prosperity becoming a wealthy landowner. He was appointed registrar of voters in Tallahatchie County before being elected sergeant-at-arms of the Mississippi Senate. By 1871, he was a rising star in the political world and was named the Tax Assessor of Bolivar County. He continued to invest in land and as his wealth increased, so did his influence. The following year, he became sheriff and a member of the Board of Levee Commissioners.
The state legislature elected Bruce to represent the state of Mississippi in the U.S. Senate and in 1875, he arrived in Washington, D.C. to present his credentials. He met with some of the same challenges as Hiram Revels did but was able to overcome them becoming the first Black to serve a full term in the U.S. Senate. During his tenure, he advocated vociferously for the rights of Blacks and also favored the interests of other ethnic and racial minorities especially the American Indians. Four years later, nearing the end of his term he presided over a Senate session – the first Black to do so.
He left the Senate after a single term and was appointed Register of the Treasury by President James Garfield, followed by an appointment as the recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia by President Benjamin Harrison.
Bruce died in Washington, D.C. in 1898.
EDWARD W. BROOKE
“The only Black man to serve in the U.S. Senate in the 20th century – 1967 to 1979.”
Edward W. Brooke was the only Black man elected to the U.S. Senate during the entire 20th century and the first since Reconstruction. Though he was a Republican, he welcomed welfare proposals and demonstrated immense concern for the underprivileged through his support for legislation like the Housing and Urban Development Act of 1969 and the Philadelphia Plan. Both pieces of legislation cost him dearly and drew the ire of many in his party. That was very revealing and it said a lot about the character of man, Senator Brooke and how he arrived at his decisions.
Born in Washington, D.C. on October 26, 1919, Brooke attended public elementary school and Dunbar High School before going to Howard University, one of the few higher schools of learning where he was readily accepted. After graduating from Howard, he moved on to Boston University where he received his law degree in 1948.
He enlisted in the army, attained the rank of captain and since he was multi-lingual -Latin and French – he commanded special attention in Italy working with a group of resistance fighters. Brooke was in the all-Black 366th Combat Infantry Regiment and he defended men in Military tribunals. He served five years and was awarded the Bronze Star and the Combat Infantryman’s Badge.
In Italy, he met his future wife, Remigia and though light-skinned, his “negro-ness” was apparent and he was unable to win her parents’ approval at first. On returning to Boston, he went into private practice law and became the chairman of Boston Finance Commission with a charge to root out graft, corruption and conflicts of interest by public officials. When Brooke removed the Boston City Auctioneer, his accomplishments were noticed by the state’s Republican political machine and his lightness made him non-threatening during the racially charged era. With a plurality of predominantly White voters, he became the Massachusetts’ first Black attorney general. It was a stunning victory because he was Black and a Republican, when most Blacks were Democrats. His tenure catapulted his administration into the annals of history with the successful capture of the infamous Boston Strangler. Then in 1966, he was elected one of the United States senators from Massachusetts.
When Southern senators sought to prevent Blacks from contracts in the federal government’s bidding process, Brooke teamed up with other liberal white Democratic senators to seek redress for the disenfranchised Black businessmen. He was not adverse to crossing his party line for the good and on principle. He was appointed to the Kerner Commission to study the cause(s) of the civil unrest in urban America; he joined with the committee in issuing a stringent report stating that there was no organized conspiracy but rather it is the conditions in the urban areas that create the kind of unrest that occurred. Along with Brooke and Roy Wilkins (the only two Blacks) the commission reported, ‘the U.S. was moving towards two societies, one Black and one White – separate and unequal.’Brooke left Congress after two terms and went back to private practice until his retirement.
CAROL MOSELEY BRAUN
“The first (only) Black woman to be elected a U.S. Senator 1993-1999.”
When Carol Moseley Braun was elected to the U. S. Senate, she was the first Black woman in history to be elected in the 200-plus year history of the Senate.
Born Carol Elizabeth Moseley in Chicago, Illinois on August 16, 1947, she attended Chicago public schools, received a bachelor’s degree in 1969 and a law degree in 1972 from the University of Chicago. She then married Michael Braun and began using a hyphenated surname, Moseley-Braun.
She started as a prosecutor in United States Attorney’s office in Chicago where she handled high-profiled cases involving civil and appellate law in the areas of housing, health and the environment. She was an aggressive prosecutor, which earned her the Attorney General’s Special Achievement award and recognition in the area of public interest.
In 1977, Moseley-Braun left the U. S. Attorney’s office and was elected to the Illinois House of Representatives in 1978. There she championed education reform, civil rights, gun control, health-care, governmental reform, and for a moratorium on the death penalty. She became the assistant Democratic majority leader and “the conscience of the House”
She was re-elected to a second term and continued on the same legislative path. Moseley-Braun initiated a reapportionment case, Crosby vs. State Board of Elections, on behalf of African Americans and Latino citizens that became a landmark case. Then she was elected as the Cook County, Recorder of Deeds where she remained for four years.
The Clarence Thomas confirmation battle in 1991 politically wounded Alan Dixon, a Senator from Illinois who voted for the confirmation. Moseley-Braun challenged him in the primary and gained 38 percent, the most in a field of three candidates. It was an upset victory that pitted her against the Republican candidate. She received 53 percent of the votes and became the first African American woman to be elected to the U. S. Senate. Moseley-Braun was also one of the only two African Americans to serve in the Senate during the 20th century and the only African American in the 100-member Senate when she arrived in Washington, D.C. in 1993.
Moseley-Braun paid special attention to racial and gender issues for obvious reasons. She clashed with Southern senators over a patent for a Confederate insignia and won, and encountered Washington’s vintage preoccupation – an investigation. Moseley-Braun became the focus of an investigation by the Federal Elections Commission (FEC) for unaccounted campaign funds. After a thorough investigation, the FEC found some minor violations that were due to book-keeping errors and not any irregularities.
However, her activities were closely watched because though there were other woman senators, the Senate was still a White male-dominated institution and Moseley-Braun was Black and female. She also opposed those laws that she believed were adverse primarily to her state and the well-being of the nation including the Communications Decency Act, the Defense of Marriage Act and the Death Penalty. Besides the aforementioned acts, there was social legislation that Moseley-Braun held strong positions on such as pro-choice, partial birth abortions, funding in military bases and gun-control measures.
As an African American and a senator, Moseley-Braun felt compelled to reach out to countries in Africa as part of her responsibility to bridge the gap in her heritage, especially since it was commonplace among legislators. She was criticized for meeting General Sani Abacha of Nigeria because he had a questionable human rights record and his country seemed to always be in turmoil.
Her career suffered as a result of the previously-mentioned campaign finances investigation, her political enemies misinterpreted her alleged “foreign policy” blunder and some of her actions to the public. Moseley-Braun was unsuccessful in her bid for a second term and later became the ambassador to New Zealand.
Since Moseley-Braun left public office, she opened the law firm of Moseley-Braun LLC in Chicago.
BARACK H. OBAMA
“Former Senator (2005 to 2008) and the first Black man to be elected President of the United States 2009 -”
As a first term U.S. Senator, Barack Obama’s rise on the national stage, and indeed on the international stage, is nothing short of phenomenal and meteoric. After serving two terms in the Illinois state legislature and experiencing a crushing defeat to become a congressman, Obama shot to prominence during his memorable speech at the Democratic National Convention in Boston, Massachusetts in 2004.
When he arrived in the nation’s capital as the junior senator from Illinois, his name was still largely unrecognized outside of his state. After two years in the Senate and his major claim to fame was a speech in 2002 denouncing the Invasion of Iraq as a dumb war, Obama announced his quest to be the President of the United States.
Out of a field of approximately 16 candidates from both parties, he seemed like a “long shot.” And as he later said, he was the most unlikely candidate – a skinny kid with a funny name. (Who would vote for “Barack Obama” for president!) Obama was the most unusual candidate for president in American history. Born in Hawaii in 1961, of a White mother from Kansas and a Black father from Kenya, Africa, and relatively “new” to Washington, D.C., he was challenging men and a prominent, high-profile woman for a position that many of them had been eyeing for most of their lives. He was too young, so said the experts and besides having a funny name, he was too inexperienced.
During the next 22 months, Obama led a campaign that changed the political landscape of American presidential politics forever. He defeated all of the Democrats to become the nominee of the Democratic Party and then went on to defeat the Republican nominee, John McCain, to become the first Black President of the United States.
OBAMA’S SUCCESSOR IN THE U.S. SENATE
As President-elect Barack Obama resigned from the Senate, the Governor of Illinois will now appoint his replacement.
CONGRESSMAN JESSE L. JACKSON JR. (D-Illinois) has the ideal qualifications to fill the vacancy. He has the experience, knowledge of the state and the goodwill of the President-elect to be appointed the next U.S. Senator from Illinois thereby becoming the sixth Black U.S. Senator.
“Legends” is the brainchild of Danny J. Bakewell Sr., executive publisher of the Los Angeles Sentinel. Every week it will highlight the accomplishments of African Americans and Africans.