Excerpt from "On the Readmission of Georgia to the Union"
Delivered on March 16, 1870; reprinted on U.S. Senate (Web site)
An African American senator speaks up about the readmission of a state
"They bear toward their former masters no revengeful thoughts, no hatreds, no animosities."
In two short years after the American Civil War (1861–65), the African American men of the South had gone from working as slaves to casting ballots as freedmen. It was an astonishing development in Southern society, outmatched only by the fact that African American men could also hold elected office and make laws alongside their former masters. Historians estimate about two thousand African Americans held federal, state, and local offices in the decade after Southern African American men were given the right to vote under the Reconstruction Act of 1867 (see Chapter 10). During that time period, the South sent two African American men to the Senate and fourteen more to the House of Representatives. About eight hundred African Americans served as state legislators, and hundreds more held local offices ranging from city councilman to sheriff.
It was an exciting opportunity—and a tremendous responsibility—for African Americans. Robert Brown Elliott (1842–1884), an African American attorney from South Carolina, remembered how "everything was still" when he rose to give his first speech in 1871 as a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. His supporters quietly hoped he would perform well. Those who thought African Americans had no place in Congress secretly hoped Elliott would embarrass himself. "I shall never forget that day," Elliott said, in a passage reprinted in Black Voices from Reconstruction. "I cannot, fellow-citizens, picture to you the emotions that filled my mind." Elliott wound up serving nearly two terms in Congress and was known for a speech he gave in support of the Civil Rights Act, in which he proclaimed, "What you give to one class you must give to all."
Indeed, the political pioneers like Elliott faced criticism at every step. African American officials were often dismissed as ignorant and illiterate (unable to read or write), even though some had attended school and traveled around the country. Edward King (1848–1896), author of the 1875 book The Great South: A Record of Journeys, described the African American officials he met in Mississippi as "worthy, intelligent, and likely to progress." At the same time, he wrote, the white men of Louisiana "will not admit that the negro is at all competent to legislate for him, or to vote with him on matters of common importance to white and black." Some of those African American officials, particularly in local offices, were indeed illiterate—but so were many of the whites in those communities.
Some Southern whites also suspected African American politicians were only interested in helping their race, possibly at the expense of whites. But in most cases, historians say, African American officials worked for measures that would benefit both races. For example, they pushed hard for public education systems, a first in many Southern states. "If the whites would prove that they are willing to extend to others the rights which they desire for themselves, they would be met in the same spirit," said Robert DeLarge (1842–1874), one of the African Americans who helped rewrite South Carolina's state constitution, as quoted in Black Voices from Reconstruction. "If they will come forward … they will find us ready to meet them."
Perhaps the most damaging stereotype was that of the clueless and corrupt African American official, as portrayed in the 1874 book, The Prostrate State, by James Shepherd Pike (1811–1882; see Chapter 13). In his historically questionableaccount of the African American–led South Carolina legislature, Pike wrote that lawmakers refurbished the capitol with $480 clocks and $650 chandeliers, renovated their apartments with Belgian carpets, and voted to reimburse the Speaker of the House $1,000 for a lost horse racing bet—all with taxpayer dollars. But there is limited evidence of such corruption among African American officials. The documented cases of corruption in Mississippi, for example, involved a white Republican who pocketed $7,251 from a local hospital, and a white Democrat who embezzled $315,612 from the state treasury, according to Reconstruction in the South.
For the most part, white Southerners resented the fact that African Americans were able to vote and hold office. Adding to their bitterness, many whites were barred from doing the same because they had been active participants in the "rebellion" against the North. A group of white men in Georgia decided to do something about it. As required for readmission into the Union, Georgia rewrote its state constitution in 1868 with the help of African American delegates, and elected a new legislature that included thirty-two African American members. But when the legislature met that summer, the white members kicked out their African American colleagues. The white Democratic majority—which included some ex-Confederates whom Congress had barred from office—passed a measure saying no man with more than one-eighth "African blood" could hold office.
The move infuriated the African American legislators and their white Republican supporters. Henry McNeal Turner (1834–1915), an African Methodist Episcopal Church minister elected to the Georgia legislature, scolded the white lawmakers before leading the procession of African Americans out of the capitol. "I am here to demand my rights, and to hurl thunderbolts at the men who would dare to cross the threshold of my manhood," Turner said in a speech reprinted in Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. Nowhere in the history of the world, Turner said, were millions of freed people governed by laws without having a say in how those laws were made. Plus, Turner asked: "How can a white man represent a colored constituency, if a colored man cannot do it?"
Congress pressured Georgia to readmit those African American legislators, but the dispute resurfaced in 1870 when Congress debated a bill to bring Georgia back into the Union. The bill included an amendment that could have allowed Georgia to exclude other African Americans from office. Although he had been sworn into office only three weeks earlier, U.S. senator Hiram R. Revels (1827–1901), the first African American member of Congress, felt compelled to speak up. He had faced those same prejudices upon his swearing-in, when some members of Congress argued that Revels was not eligible for office because he had not been a U.S. citizen for at least nine years (African Americans were not recognized as citizens until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866).
Born to freed slaves in North Carolina, Revels attended Knox College in Illinois and became a minister for the African Methodist Episcopal Church before the Civil War. Once the war broke out, Revels helped recruit African American soldiers for the Union army and served as a chaplain, or religious counselor, for an African American regiment. In his first speech in Congress, Revels reminded his colleagues of the sacrifice of those African American troops who helped turn the tide of the war. He also described the good will of the slaves who did not mistreat the Southern women and children after the white men went to war for the Confederacy. Surely the African American race had proved its trustworthiness to cast a ballot and hold elected office, Revels said.
Things to remember while reading an excerpt from "On the Readmission of Georgia to the Union":
- The 1867 Reconstruction Act of Congress gave African American men the right to vote and run for elected office. The same act barred certain ex-Confederates from doing the same, creating bitterness among whites who were exiled from the political process.
- African American officials faced suspicions that they were incompetent, corrupt, or only looking out for their own race. On the whole, however, historians say those stereotypes were untrue. Many African American officials were illiterate, but then again, so were many whites in the South, which largely lacked a system of public schools.
- In order to be readmitted to the Union, Georgia approved a new state constitution and elected a new legislature with input from African American voters. Thirty-two African American men were elected to the legislature, but their white colleagues kicked them out of the assembly. Congress debated whether to allow Georgia back into the Union in a way that could allow the exclusion of African American officials.
Excerpt from "On the Readmission of Georgia to the Union"
Mr. President, I rise at this particular juncture in the discussion of the Georgia bill with feelings which perhaps never before entered into the experience of any member of this body. I rise, too, with misgivings as to the propriety of lifting my voice at this early period after my admission into the Senate. Perhaps it were wiser for me, so inexperienced in the details of senatorial duties, to have remained a passive listener in the progress of this debate; but when I remember that my term is short, and that the issues with which this bill is fraught are momentous in their present and future influence upon the well-being of my race, I would seem indifferent to the importance of the hour and recreant to the high trust imposed upon me if I hesitated to lend my voice on behalf of the loyal people of the South.…
I am well aware, sir, that the idea is abroad that an antagonism exists between the whites and blacks, that that race which the nation raised from the degradation of slavery, and endowed with the full and unqualified rights and privileges of citizenship, are intent upon power, at whatever price it can be gained.…
Certainly no one possessing any personal knowledge of the colored population of my own or other states need be reminded of the noble conduct of that people under the most trying circumstances in the history of the late war, when they were beyond the protection of the federal forces. While the confederate army pressed into its ranks every white male capable of bearing arms, the mothers, wives, daughters, and sisters of the southern soldiers were left defenseless and in the power of the blacks, upon whom the chains of slavery were still riveted; and to bind those chains the closer was the real issue for which so much life and property was sacrificed.
And now, sir, I ask, how did that race act?… They waited, and they waited patiently. In the absence of their masters they protected the virtue and chastity of defenseless women. Think, sir, for a moment, what the condition of this land would be today if the slave population had risen in servile insurrection against those who month by month were fighting to perpetuate that institution which brought to them all the evils of which they complained. Where would have been the security for property, female chastity, and childhood's innocence?
… Mr. President, I maintain that the past record of my race is a true index of the feelings which today animate them. They bear toward their former masters no revengeful thoughts, no hatreds, no animosities. They aim not to elevate themselves by sacrificing one single interest of their white fellow-citizens. They ask but the rights which are theirs by God's universal law, and which are the natural outgrowth, the logical sequence of the condition in which the legislative enactments of this nation have placed them. They appeal to you and to me to see that they receive that protection which alone will enable them to pursue their daily avocations with success and enjoy the liberties of citizenship on the same footing with their white neighbors and friends..…
And here let me say further, that the people of the North owe to the colored race a deep obligation which it is no easy matter to fulfill. When the federal armies were thinned by death and disaster, and somber clouds overhung the length and breadth of the Republic, and the very air was pregnant with the rumors of foreign interference—in those dark days of defeat, whose memories even yet haunt us as an ugly dream, from what source did our nation in its seeming death throes gain additional and new-found power? It was the sable sons of the South that valiantly rushed to the rescue, and but for their intrepidity and ardent daring many a northern fireside would miss today paternal counsels or a brother's love.
Sir, I repeat the fact that the colored race saved to the noble women of New England and the middle states men on whom they lean today for security and safety. Many of my race, the representatives of these men on the field of battle, sleep in the countless graves of the South. If those quiet resting-places of our honored dead could speak today what a mighty voice, like to the rushing of a mighty wind, would come up from those sepulchral homes! Could we resist the eloquent pleadings of their appeal?
… And now, sir, I protest in the name of truth and human rights against any and every attempt to fetter the hands of one hundred thousand white and colored citizens of the state of Georgia. Sir, I now leave this question to the consideration of this body, and I wish my last words upon the great issues involved in the bill before us to be my solemn and earnest demand for full and prompt protection for the helpless loyal people of Georgia.
What happened next …
Revels lost the argument: Congress readmitted Georgia with the controversial amendment intact. But Congress required Georgia to ratify the Fifteenth Amendment to the U.S. Constitution, which guaranteed all African American men had the right to vote (see Chapter 16). Congress also forced the state to readmit the African American members of its legislature.
African Americans continued to face obstacles at all levels of public office. Although they often held positions such as mayor or justice of the peace, African Americans had the hardest time becoming sheriffs, a job widely regarded as the most important one in the county. Historian Vernon L. Wharton counts fewer than a dozen African Americans who served as sheriffs anywhere in Mississippi during Reconstruction. It was the last role Southern whites wanted to give to an African American man. "Law enforcement implied domination, and as [one white official] said, the white race was 'not in the habit of being dominated by the colored race,'" Wharton wrote in "The Negro in Mississippi Politics."
Once elected, African American officials faced the threat of violence from the Ku Klux Klan or other white supremacist groups. Jonathan C. Gibbs (1827–1874), an African American Methodist minister who served as Florida's secretary of state from 1868 to 1873, was praised by a Jacksonville paper as "a good example of what education will make of his race," according to The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida. Yet his brother found Gibbs sleeping in the attic with a "considerable … arsenal" (stockpile of weapons) for fear of the Klan, which had threatened to kill him, historian Joe M. Richardson wrote. When he suddenly died after giving a passionate speech at a Republican meeting, some people suspected the forty-eight-year-old Gibbs had been poisoned.
Although Southern whites would complain of being under "Negro rule," the term was misleading. True, in 1867, African American voters outnumbered whites in the South 703,400 to 660,000. But the South Carolina legislature was the only place where African American officials outnumbered whites, and only for a brief time. By the early 1870s, white supremacist groups (those who believe that whites are superior and should be in charge) were succeeding in intimidating African Americans from voting or running for office. African American lawmakers did not disappear after Reconstruction—North Carolina, for instance, had an African American congressman, George H. White (1852–1918), as late as 1901—but they depended on white legislators to get anything accomplished.
Blanche K. Bruce (1841–1898), an African American planter who represented Mississippi in the U.S. Senate, later defended the work of African American officials during Reconstruction. "We began our political career under the disadvantages of the inexperience in public affairs that generations of enforced bondage had entailed upon our race," Blanche said in an 1877 speech, reprinted in 200 Years: A Bicentennial Illustrated History of the United States. But he said there was no sign that African American leaders were "oppressive" toward whites. And the new state constitutions written with African American men's help "were more in harmony with the spirit of the age and the genius of our free institutions than the obsolete laws" they replaced.
Did you know …
- Revels was appointed to the Senate seat previously held by Jefferson Davis (1808–1889), the man who left Congress to become president of the Confederacy. Revels finished the last fourteen months of Davis's term, then returned to Mississippi in 1871 where he was named president of Alcorn College, the state's first African American college.
- Former slave John Roy Lynch (1847–1939) went to Washington, D.C., in 1873 as the first African American member of the House of Representatives from Mississippi. He was also the last African American representative from Mississippi until 1987.
- Although no African Americans were elected governor during Reconstruction, P. B. S. Pinchback (1837–1921) served as acting governor of Louisiana for about a month during the impeachment trial of Governor Henry Clay Warmoth (1842–1931) in 1872 and 1873. That made Pinchback the country's first African American governor, and the only African American to hold that position until 1990.
Consider the following …
- Do you think Southern whites would have been more accepting of African American officials if all ex-Confederates were allowed to vote? Or would that have made it harder for African American candidates to get elected?
- Why did certain whites resent African American officials? How did they try to keep African Americans out of power?
- How did Revels make the case for allowing African Americans the right to participate in politics?
For More Information
Coulter, E. Merton. The South During Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1947.
Foner, Eric. Reconstruction: America's Unfinished Revolution. New York: HarperCollins Publishers, 1988.
King, Edward. The Great South: A Record of Journeys. Hartford, CT: American Publishing Company, 1875. Also available at University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill Libraries. http://docsouth.unc.edu/nc/king/king.html#p89 (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Revels, Hiram R. "On the Readmission of Georgia to the Union." U.S.
Senate. http://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/resources/pdf/R... (accessed on September 20, 2004).
Richardson, Joe M. The Negro in the Reconstruction of Florida. Tallahassee: Florida State University, 1965.
Smith, John David. Black Voices from Reconstruction. Gainesville: University Press of Florida, 1997.
Stalcup, Brenda, ed. Reconstruction: Opposing Viewpoints. San Diego: Greenhaven Press, 1995.
Trelease, Allen W. White Terror: The Ku Klux Klan Conspiracy and Southern Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1971.
200 Years: A Bicentennial Illustrated History of the United States. Washington, DC: U.S. News & World Report, 1973.
Wharton, Vernon L. "The Negro in Mississippi Politics." In Reconstruction in the South. Lexington, MA: D. C. Heath and Company, 1972.