Book Review: Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen

capitol menThe story of the African-American members of Congress during the Reconstruction era is often forgotten. The long standing Dunning School of history made every effort to paint reconstruction as a mistake and portray that the only way to truly reconcile the nation was to let white southerners do what they want in the region. Thus the stories of this era were long purged.  Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen by Phillip Dray is an attempt to educate the public about the era and the role the members of Congress who were black, including Florida’s Josiah Walls (who is one of the men on the cover the book).

These members, all part of the Republican majorities in the Congress achieved a certain status during the Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant, but faded from sight after eventually to be replaced by white Democrats, sometimes even due to violence.

The author does an excellent job of discussing strife within the African-American community, the disconnect of those in Washington from the plight of freedman in the south, the internal conflicts in the 1860’s/70’s Civil Right Movement including the parallel women’s movement.

It’s particularly interesting to see how Democrats at the time were willing to challenge the legitimacy of elections and the seating of members based on race. Blacks had not been citizens long enough the Democrats would argue to allow them to be elected or selected and then seated in either the House or Senate. The reality is that their was some legal ground for this challenge, as the constitution requires Senators to have been citizens for nine years. Of course still this was a racist claim…blacks had not been citizens but they HAD been Americans, born and raised in the country. Confusion also reigned about the eligibility of previously free blacks, had they been citizens in the first place?

Unfortunately the realities of the South meant that terrorism from the Ku Klux Klan which was essentially simply a paramilitary extension of the Democratic Party in many states worked to overthrow Republican Reconstruction governments, disenfranchise blacks or force them to vote Democratic. Eventually Reconstruction ended and African-Americans would not return to Congress from the south until the 1980’s (with the exception of a lone term for a Republican Populist African-American from North Carolina in the late 1890’s).

The book talks about the violent rise of “Pitchfork” Ben Tillman from the violent Hamburg Massacre in 1876 where blacks were lynched and Republican rule in South Carolina was overturned violently to his near miss for the 1896 Democratic Presidential nomination. In that period, other southern states emulated the the “success” of South Carolina in violently disenfranchising African-Americans AND bringing one party (and one race) rule to the region. The Democratic Party served as the vehicle for white supremacy while paramilitary groups including the KKK were de facto extensions of the Democratic Party much in the same way the Irish Republican Army (IRA) was a militarized extension of Sinn Fein in Ireland before independence from the United Kingdom.

Tillman made clear his views when he became Governor:

“The whites have absolute control of the State government, and we intend at any and all hazards to retain it. The intelligent exercise of the right of suffrage … is as yet beyond the capacity of the vast majority of colored men. We deny, without regard to color, that “all men are created equal”; it is not true now, and was not true when Jefferson wrote it.”

He also boasted about making the state a one party and one race entity through fraud and violence:

“How did we recover our liberty? By fraud and violence. We tried to overcome the thirty thousand majority by honest methods, which was a mathematical impossibility. After we had borne these indignities for eight years life became worthless under such conditions. Under the leadership and inspiration of Mart[in] Gary … we won the fight.”

In some counties with high black populations ZERO Republican votes for any office were cast. In other words, African-Americans, 90% of which at the time were Republicans were either intimidated from voting by threats of force or voted for white racist Democrats in order to “stay in place.” In all likelihood they didn’t vote because consistently southern states has a far smaller percentage of its eligible voters casting ballots than the rest of the country. Republican lawmakers in the north would raise issue from time to time but as we know it would not be until 1965 that it would actually be addressed.

Many similar stories are told in this excellent book including anecdotes from state legislatures where white Democrats similarly tried to block the seating of black Republicans. Dray’s book is balanced and very readable. If you’re not into Civil Rights or the Reconstruction era it might be a tough read, but if you  have even the slightest interest in either topic, I highly recommend it.

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