This week in history: First African American congressman speaks on House of Representatives floor

The second African American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, Jefferson Franklin Long served less than three months – the shortest term of any African-American member – but nevertheless on Feb. 1, 1871, 145 years ago, became the first black member to speak on the House floor.

Speaking against the Amnesty Bill, which restored political rights to most former Confederates, Long pleaded with his colleagues to acknowledge the atrocities being committed by white supremacists in Georgia. “Do we, then, really propose here to-day…when loyal men dare not carry the ‘stars and stripes’ through our streets…to relieve from political disability the very men who have committed these Kuklux [sic] outrages?” he declared on the House floor. “I think that I am doing my duty to my constituents and my duty to my country when I vote against such a proposition.”

Jefferson Long was born to a slave mother on March 3, 1836, in Knoxville, a small town in Crawford County, Ga. Long’s father was believed to have been the son of a local white man. By the 1840 U.S. census he was listed as a slave in the household of James C. Loyd, a tailor with modest land holdings in Knoxville. During the 1850s the Loyd family moved from Knoxville to Macon, taking Long with them. Not long after their arrival they sold Long to Edwin Saulsbury, a prominent businessman.

Long had taken well to the tailor trade and was soon set up in a shop by his new owner. The slave trade was alive and well in Macon, and Long had a front-row seat: His shop was across the street from the slave auction block. The shop was also next door to the local newspaper. When Long was not employed mending or sewing, he was beseeching the typesetters at the newspaper to set copy, an activity he observed closely as he taught himself to read and write. By 1860 Long had married Lucinda Carhart and had started a family.

By the end of the Civil War, and with emancipation, Long was a flourishing member of society, established in his own shop. Most of his clients were white, as they were the only rural Georgians able to afford custom-made clothing. He was an active member of the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) of Macon, headed by Henry McNeal Turner. Under Turner’s influence Long made his first political appearance at an 1867 meeting of the Georgia Educational Association, formed to protect and advance the interests of freedmen. Long may also have had a hand in the establishment of Georgia’s Freedman’s Savings Bank, a project led by Turner and established through the AME Church.

Long hailed the Congressional Reconstruction Act of 1867 and urged former slaves to register to vote. Partially as a result of his efforts, 37 African Americans were elected to the Georgia constitutional convention of 1867 and 32 to the state legislature, among them Turner.

Long also belonged to the Macon Union League, a grass-roots political action group. A dazzling orator, he introduced Georgian freedmen to politics by preaching the virtues of the Republican Party. While traveling the state, organizing local Republican branches, and encouraging black voters to register, Long brought many whites into the Republican fold. In 1869, he served on the Republican state committee and was a leader in the Georgia Labor Convention, which organized black agricultural workers to demand increased wages, better jobs, and improved working conditions.

Congress delayed Georgia’s re-entry into the Union because the state legislature refused to ratify the 14th Amendment, and white Republicans and Conservatives expelled 29 legally elected black members from the Georgia legislature in September 1868. Conditions for readmission included reseating the black members and ratification of the 15th Amendment. In July 1870, these terms were agreed to, and a Georgia delegation was permitted to return to Congress. A special election to fill the delegation’s seats for the remainder of the 41st Congress (1869-1871) was set for the same day – December 20, 1870 – as the election for a full term to the 42nd Congress (1871-1873).

The Georgia Republican Party chose black candidates to run for the abbreviated terms, reserving the full term for white candidates. In the state’s central district, the party nominated Long for the 41st Congress and state senator Thomas Jefferson Speer for the 42nd Congress. The night before the election, Long gave a series of speeches across the district, encouraging black voters to support the Republican ticket. The following day, he rallied a large number of blacks from Macon and marched with them to the polls. Armed whites were waiting, and a riot broke out. Long was unharmed, but four others were killed, and most blacks left the polls without voting.

The unusual election lasted three days. White politicians accused blacks of voting multiple times and spread rumors that African Americans from South Carolina and Alabama had crossed state lines to vote. But despite the election’s inconsistencies, Long defeated his opponent, Democrat Winburn J. Lawton, garnering 12,867 votes (53 percent). However, he was not sworn in until January 16, 1871, because of complications related to Georgia’s readmission to the Union. Long took his seat one month after Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina was seated, the first African American in the House.

Long’s term was so short that he was not assigned to any committees, yet he was determined to fight for the civil rights of freed slaves. On February 1, 1871, he became the first African-American Representative to speak before the House when he disagreed with a bill that exempted former Confederate politicians from swearing allegiance to the Constitution. Long argued against allowing unrepentant Confederates to return to Congress, noting that many belonged to secret societies like the Ku Klux Klan, which intimidated black citizens, and feigned loyalty to rebuild political strength. “If this House removes the disabilities of disloyal men,” Long warned, “I venture to prophesy you will again have trouble from the very same men who gave you trouble before.”

Many major newspapers reported on Long’s address, and northern newspapers, especially, commended his oratorical skills. Georgia newspapers described his speech as a malicious attempt to disfranchise whites. Long’s efforts were fruitless; the House voted 118 to 90 to grant Confederates amnesty.

One of the few votes Long cast in the House was to seat Thomas P. Beard, a black Republican from northeast Georgia, after his defeat by Democrat Stephen Corker. Radical Republicans, Long among them, objected to seating Corker when he presented his credentials on January 24, 1871. Beard claimed that his election against Corker equaled Long’s for its violence, testifying that large numbers of voters who had intended to vote for him were “shot, beat or otherwise maltreated” by “organized bands of desperados” connected to the Democrats. The resolution objecting to Corker’s credentials was defeated 148-42, and Corker served out the term.

Long was the last black representative elected from Georgia for the next 101 years, until Rep. Andrew Young won a seat in 1972. After leaving Congress on March 3, 1871, Long returned to his tailoring business in Macon. Although he remained active in politics, he never again ran for public office. As Reconstruction ended and the freedoms he had fought so hard for began to dwindle, he recognized that white control in Georgia had shut blacks out of politics. He campaigned for Republican candidates, addressing a gathering of freedmen and women in Macon on Election Day, 1872. The freedmen then marched to the polls. A riot broke out when armed whites attacked the group. Four freedmen were killed and most black voters in Macon did not get to cast their ballots that day.

Long served as a member of the Southern Republican Convention in 1874 and as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions from 1872-80. Sharp racial division in all the political parties had so disillusioned Long by the mid-1880s that he left politics permanently to focus on business affairs until his death in Macon on February 4, 1901. He was interred in Lynwood Cemetery.

Sources: Wikipedia, BlackPast.org, US House of Representatives website, and Grace Hardwick in the New Georgia Encyclopedia.

Photo: Wikimedia (CC)


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Special to PeoplesWorld.org
Special to PeoplesWorld.org

Peoplesworld.org is a daily news website of, for and by the 99% and the direct descendant of the Daily Worker. Published by Long View Publishing Co., People’s World reports on the movements for jobs, peace, equality, democracy, civil rights and liberties, labor, immigrant, LGBT and women’s rights, protection of the environment, and more.

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