Reconstruction and Beyond: The 8 African-American Senators

Eight African-American Senators made huge impacts on the history of politics.

ByABC News
January 31, 2013, 3:46 PM

Feb. 1, 2013 — -- intro:The United States Senate has a long history of producing historic leaders, but has featured only eight African-American members. The following eight senators set a number of political and social milestones spanning the Reconstruction and beyond. Continue reading to learn more about their many achievements.

quicklist:1title:Hiram Rhodes Revels, R-Miss.text:Revels was the first African-American to serve as a state senator, representing Mississippi. Revels was elected by the Mississippi State Senate to fill a vacant U.S. Senate seat, which was abandoned by Albert G. Brown when Mississippi seceded from the Union during the Civil War.

Revels was greeted in Washington by two days of debate about his seating in the Senate. Southern Democrats staunchly opposed Revels' admission into the Senate because of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision, which stated that African-Americans were property rather than citizens. Since the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, two years before Revels was elected to the Senate, Democrats argued that Revels could not fulfill the nine-year citizenship requirement and, therefore, could not legally assume the position of senator. Their argument was ruled invalid after a decision that the Civil War and Reconstruction amendments overturned Dred Scott.

Despite only serving from Feb. 25, 1870, to March 3, 1871, Revels served on the Committee on Education and the Committee on the District of Columbia, and helped introduce a number of bills. After his term ended, Revels became president of historically black Alcorn College and later served as pastor of the Holy Springs Methodist Episcopal Church in Mississippi.


quicklist:2title:Blanche Kelso Bruce, R-Miss.text:Also elected by the Mississippi Senate, Blanche Kelso Bruce was the first African-American senator to serve a full term, from 1875 to 1881.

Bruce's mother, Polly Bruce, was a house slave, and his father was a white Virginia plantation owner. As a child, Bruce was educated alongside his white half-brother and legally freed by his father to pursue an apprenticeship as a printer. After attending Oberlin College in Ohio for two years, Bruce moved to Mississippi, where he purchased an abandoned plantation. The purchase allowed him to prosper and gain notoriety within the state.

As senator, Bruce participated in debates regarding the civil rights of minorities, including those of African-Americans, American Indians, Chinese immigrants and even those of former Confederates. Despite his efforts in the Senate, Republican influence in Mississippi diminished toward the end of the Reconstruction period and Bruce was not elected for a second term.

In 1881, President James Garfield appointed Bruce as register of the United States Treasury.


quicklist:3title:Edward William Brooke III, R-Mass.text:Edward Brooke made history in 1967 as the first African-American senator elected by popular vote. He was also the first black senator to carry out two full, consecutive terms before being defeated in 1978.

As part of the liberal wing of the Republican Party, Brooke organized the "Wednesday Club" that allowed progressive Republican senators to meet and discuss upcoming political strategies. Brooke supported then-Michigan Gov. George W. Romney and then-New York Gov. Nelson Rockefeller in their 1968 presidential bids against Richard Nixon.

Brooke exhibited a moderate political stance, stating that his intentions as senator were not rooted in "[being] the national leader of the Negro people."

Even so, he was the leading advocate for affordable housing and spoke out against housing discrimination practices. Brooke took his advocacy across party lines by co-authoring the 1968 Fair Housing Act with Sen. Walter Mondale, D-Minn.

Although Brooke exhibited bipartisan tendencies, he was often at odds with President Nixon. After voting against two of Nixon's Supreme Court nominees, Brooke was the first Republican to call for the president's resignation during the Watergate scandal. Despite their differences, the president reportedly respected Brooke's abilities and even considered offering him a Cabinet position.

Brooke was awarded a number of accolades for his service, including the 2004 Presidential Medal of Freedom, the 2004 Jeremy Nicholson Negro Achievement Award and the 2009 Congressional Gold Medal.


quicklist:4title:Carol Moseley Braun, D-Ill.text:Carol Moseley Braun represented a number of senatorial firsts. She was the first and only elected African-American female senator, the first woman to defeat an incumbent in a senatorial election, and the first and only female senator to represent Illinois. She was also the only African-American in the Senate during her term.

Braun maintained a moderate economic voting record despite her liberal reputation. She voted in favor of NAFTA and various tort overhaul measures.

Her liberal stance emerged on social issues. She was strongly in favor of abortion rights, voted for gun-control measures and opposed the death penalty.

Braun's senatorial term also included some controversies. In 1993, she was the subject of an FEC investigation regarding $249,000 of unaccounted for campaign funds, but there were no actions taken against her. In 1999, journalist George Will wrote a column addressing possible allegations of corruption against Braun, to which she responded by comparing Will to the Ku Klux Klan. She later apologized for her statements.

After losing a a bid for a second Senate term to Peter Fitzgerald, Braun was appointed to be United States ambassador to New Zealand by then-President Clinton. In 2004, she announced her intentions to run for the Democratic presidential nomination, but pulled out before the Iowa caucus.


quicklist:5title:Barack Obama, D-Ill.text:Before winning two terms as the first African-American president of the United States, Barack Obama served three terms as an Illinois state senator. Obama was the only Senate member of the Congressional Black Caucus throughout his shortened term as U.S senator.

As a state senator, Obama was loyal to the Democratic Party, pushing for health care overhaul, campaign finance changes, law enforcement improvement, welfare and community reinvestment. Obama represented Illinois from 1994 to 2004, when he resigned from the state Senate upon his election to the United States Senate.

In the U.S. Senate, Obama served on many committees and chaired the United States Senate Foreign Relations Subcommittee on European Affairs. He continued to support Democratic Party issues, including on the topics of immigration, lobbying, campaign finance, climate change and troop reduction.

During his time in the Senate, Obama was awarded a number of honors, including being named as one of Time magazine's Most Influential People, receiving honorary degrees from a number of universities and winning a Grammy for the spoken-word edition of his book "The Audacity of Hope."


quicklist:6title:Roland Wallace Burris, D-Ill.text:Roland Wallace Burris entered the political arena as the Illinois comptroller, serving three terms from 1979 to 1990. It made him the first African-American to be elected to a state office position in Illinois.

In 1991, Burris made more history as the second African-American ever to be elected to the office of state attorney general. He later pursued unsuccessful campaigns for the offices of governor of Illinois and mayor of Chicago.

Despite Burris's long track record of public service, his appointment as the junior senator from Illinois was tainted by controversy. After President-elect Barack Obama resigned from the Senate, Burris was appointed as his replacement by Gov. Rod Blagojevich. At the time, Blagojevich was already under investigation for corruption for attempting to sell the empty Senate position Obama previously filled. Burris faced an ethical investigation and experienced a number of legal roadblocks throughout the appointment process, but eventually was able to carry out his interim position.

In the Senate, Burris served on the Committee on Armed Service and the Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs. After his term ended, Burris decided not to seek a full six-year term in the 2010 U.S. Senate election as a result of unsuccessful fundraising.


quicklist:7title:Timothy Scott, R-S.C.text:Before his appointment to the Senate in 2012, Tim Scott was the first elected African-American representative in South Carolina since 1897. His senatorial appointment made him the first black senator to represent South Carolina and the first African-American to represent a southern state in the Senate since 1881.

Scott's background in financial advising has influenced his fiscally conservative policy views, and he was equally conservative on social issues.

During his 2010 campaign for South Carolina's 1st Congressional District, he was endorsed by Tea Party activists, the Anti-Tax National Club for Growth, Sarah Palin and Mike Huckabee. Upon his election to the House, Scott declined an invitation to join the Congressional Black Caucus.

In December 2012, Gov. Nikki Haley appointed Scott as Jim DeMint's replacement to the Senate. Haley was quoted in the Washington Post as saying, "It is important to me, as a minority female, that congressman Scott earned this seat. He earned this seat for the person that he is. He earned this seat with the results he has shown."


quicklist:8title:William "Mo" Cowan, D-Mass.text:Mo Cowan is the newly appointed senator from Massachusetts and successor of Secretary of State John Kerry. Before his interim appointment, Cowan served as chief of staff and legal counsel to Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick. After Edward Brooke, Cowan is the second Africa-American senator to serve from the state of Massachusetts and the eighth African-American senator overall.

As a lawyer, Cowan practiced civil litigation and helped Gov. Mitt Romney with the appointments of black judges as a response to criticisms of the Romney administration's lack of diversity.

Cowan joined the Patrick administration in 2009, where he was responsible for the legal operations of Massachusetts and judicial nominations.

In January 2011, he became Patrick's chief of staff, but announced plans to return to the private sector in 2012. Cowen did not get to carry out his private-sector plans because of his appointment. But he has been quoted as saying that returning to the private sector is still his priority after the interim appointment is completed.

"This is going to be a very short career," Cowan said when appointed. "I'm not a candidate for public service at any time today or in the future."