I recently asked a group of African American educators if they knew a) how many African Americans have served as US Senators. I also asked if they knew b) who was the first African America US Senator. No-one in the group could answer either question. One person accused me of posing a trick question, which is entirely plausible since we don’t always agree on how African a person must be to be considered African American, But I meant it in the commonly accepted definition that has persisted in this nation: if a person has any discernible African blood—either by appearance or admission—they are considered black. The answers are a) six and b) Hiram Rhodes Revels.
Since 1788, 1,914 people have served as US Senators, up to 100 at a time. Thirty-eight of them have been women (There are currently 17 female Senators), five have been Asian, six Latino, three Native American and six have been African American.
Since Carol Moseley Braun is both female and African American, your good math skills will tell you that historically 1,857 US Senators in history have been white males. For the record that is 97% of all of our Senators, even though white males make up only 37% of the US population.
There are lots of ways to go with this discussion. But in honor of African American History Month I just wanted to introduce you to our six African American Senators. The first two served under Reconstruction in the 1870s, when African Americans had first been given the right to vote. By the mid 1870s local and state Jim Crow laws had begun to make it difficult for African Americans to exercise the vote that the federal government guaranteed. Eighty-five years passed before a third African American was elected to the US Senate.
Hiram Rhodes Revels
(1870-1871) Republican from Mississippi
A freedman his entire life, preacher and educator Hiram Revels became the first African American elected to the US Senate. When Mississippi seceded from the Union at the start of the Civil War, Mississippi’s Senators Jefferson Davis and Albert Brown resigned. At the end of the war their seats were left empty. Under the influences of Union Reconstructionists, the Mississippi legislature decided to fill those seats with one white and one black Senator. In 1870, after the 15th Amendment gave African Americans the right to vote. Mr. Revels was elected by the Mississippi legislature to serve in the US Senate.
Blance Kelso Bruce
(1875-1881) Republican from Mississippi
The second African American to serve in the US Senate, was the first African American to serve a full term. He was also the only ex-slave to serve in that capacity. Like Hiram Revels before him, he was elected to the Senate by the Mississippi legislature during Reconstruction.
Edward William Brooke III
(1967–1979) Republican from Massachusetts
Edward W. Brooke’s election to the US Senate in 1966 ended an 85-year absence of African American Senators. Brooke was the first popularly elected African American Senator, the first African American Senator outside of Mississippi, and first black politician from Massachusetts to serve in Congress. He is the only African American to serve more than one term in the US Senate.
Carol Elizabeth Moseley Braun
(1993–1999) Democrat from Illinois
The first and only African American woman to serve as US Senator, Carol Moseley-Braun was also only the second black Senator since the Reconstruction Era. She was the first Democratic African American Senator and the first of three black Senators from the state of Illinois.
Barack Hussein Obama
(2005–2008) Democrat from Illinois
Barack Obama won a landslide victory, defeating Republican African American Alan Keyes to become a US Senator from Illinois. He became the fifth African American in congressional history to serve in the US Senate, the second from the state of Illinois. On November 4, 2008, he was elected the 44th President of the United States, winning with 53 percent of the vote. As President-Elect, Obama resigned from the Senate on November 16, 2008.
Roland Wallace Burris
(2009-Present) Democrat from Illinois
Roland Burris is the only African American Senator to be appointed rather than elected either by his state legislature or by the people of his state. The third Senator from Illinois, Burris was appointed December 31, 2008, to fill the vacancy caused by the resignation of Barack Obama. He is currently the only African American in the 100-member US Senate.