Cory Booker and the 1st Black Senators

100 Amazing Facts About the Negro: Meet Hiram Revels, who paved the way for men like Booker to serve.

From left: Blanche K. Bruce, Frederick Douglass, Hiram Revels (LOC, J. Hoover, 1881)
From left: Blanche K. Bruce, Frederick Douglass, Hiram Revels (LOC, J. Hoover, 1881)

Editor’s note: For those who are wondering about the retro title of this black-history series, please take a moment to learn about historian Joel A. Rogers, author of the 1934 book 100 Amazing Facts About the Negro With Complete Proof, to whom these “amazing facts” are an homage.

(The Root) — Amazing Fact About the Negro No. 52: Who was the first black man to serve in the U.S. Senate?


When the brilliant Newark Mayor Cory Booker, a Stanford honors student, Yale Law School graduate and a former Rhodes Scholar, is sworn in as New Jersey’s next U.S. senator on Oct. 31 (a historical event that should be widely heralded as a triumph of vision and one candidate’s unwavering and consistent moral commitment to public service), it will mark only the second time in history that two African Americans will be serving in the Senate at the same time. This milestone, remarkably, was only reached earlier this year after Gov. Nikki Haley of South Carolina elevated Rep. Tim Scott to Jim DeMint’s old seat and Gov. Deval Patrick of Massachusetts appointed his former chief of staff, William “Mo” Cowan, to fill the vacancy left by current Secretary of State John Kerry until a special election could be held in June. 

While Sens. Cowan and Scott only had a few months together in office, Booker and Scott will share the same chamber (at least) through 2014 when both must run again — Scott, for the first time, statewide. In both cases, Scott, a Tea Party favorite and the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction, has been matched up with a Northeastern Democrat, one who has already officiated same-sex weddings in his state. What a gesture it would be for them to sit together at President Obama’s next State of the Union address in January. While their respective parties may continue to be divided over how best to represent the “1 percent” and the “99 percent,” the Senate is now 2 percent black. In a nation that has twice elected a black man to its highest office, it is news at least worth noting — and, yes, for many, celebrating.

When Eric Foner of Columbia University, our leading historian on Reconstruction and an advisor on my current PBS series, The African Americans: Many Rivers to Cross (Episode 2 airs Tuesday night), emailed me about these amazing facts the morning after Booker’s victory, I knew I wanted to find out more about our early black senators. From working on the series, I was aware of the nearly 90-year gap separating the nation’s first two, Hiram R. Revels (1870-1871) and Blanche K. Bruce (1875-1881), and the third, Edward W. Brooke (1967-1979), but I had no idea I would discover through research that Revels’ swearing in would be delayed by the dead hand of the worst decision in Supreme Court history, or that before “Jim Crow” — in fact, just a decade after the Civil War — two other black men would almost achieve what Scott and Cowan and Scott and Booker have this year. 

That’s right!  It could — and, as we’ll see in next week’s column, should — have happened 138 years ago on March 5, 1875, two years before Reconstruction ended. This was when the Senate moved to swear in the (second) black man whom Mississippi had sent to Washington, Blanche K. Bruce, even as it continued refusing to seat the first from Louisiana, P.S.B. Pinchback, a Civil War veteran and former state governor who’d been haunting the halls of Congress for two long years waiting for an answer.

Before deciding on the fate of these two individual black men, however, the senators in power after the Civil War had to settle an even more fundamental question when it came to seating Revels in 1870: Was it too soon, according to the Constitution, for any black man to be legally entitled to serve?

Please join me this week and next as I journey back to Reconstruction days in search of Cory Booker’s oldest “ancestor” in the Senate and of the true — and fullest — significance of the 2 percent glass ceiling he has helped Sen. Tim Scott break for the second time this year. With Election Day on deck, a week from Tuesday, it’s the perfect time for us to recall how precious a right voting is, and how much those who went before sacrificed for us to exercise it.