Black History Month

Photo courtesy of Wikipedia.

By Terrance Turner

Feb. 1, 2021

Today is the first day of Black History Month. It is also the 150th anniversary of a historic day in Black History. On February 1, 1871, Jefferson Franklin Long became the first Black congressman to speak before the House of Representatives.

According to the House of Representatives’ archives, Jefferson Long was born to a slave mother on March 3, 1836, in Knoxville, a small town in west–central Georgia. (Long’s father was believed to have been the son of a local white man.) “Defying the law, Long learned to read and write. Trained as a tailor, he opened a successful business in Macon, Georgia, after his emancipation following the end of the Civil War.”

Shortly after the war, Long married Lucinda Carhart, and they raised seven children. One of Long’s sons later helped run his business. (Significantly, most of Long’s clients were white — they were often the only ones able to afford custom-made clothing.)

Long’s tailor shop catered to politically connected clients and provided him the resources to become involved in Republican politics. Starting in 1866, Long began promoting literacy among African Americans, encouraging them to learn to read and write just as he had done. 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 better wages, better jobs, and better working conditions.

The Georgia Republican Party nominated Long for a seat on the 41st Congress (1869-1871). According to Congress.gov, Long was selected to fill the vacancy caused by the House declaring Samuel F. Gove not entitled to the seat. (The state of Georgia was not re-admitted to the Union until 1870 because it refused to ratify the 14th Amendment. Some Congress members were expelled in the interim.)

Long won a special election for the seat on Dec. 12, 1870. But he wasn’t sworn in until a month later due to complications in Georgia’s re-entry into the Union. Still, he made history. Long was the first Black man to represent Georgia in Congress. According to the book Black Firsts, Long was the second Black man elected to Congress, the first (and only) one from Georgia elected during Reconstruction. (John Willis Menard was the first Black man elected to Congress, but he was never seated. An elections committee ruled that it was too early to admit a black man to Congress. He did, however, become the first Black man to address the House.) Long served from January to March 1871.

On February 1, 1871, Jefferson Franklin Long became the first black congressman to speak on the House floor. He spoke out against the Amnesty Bill, which would allow former Confederate politicians to return to Congress. According to the House Archives, the bill would exempt them from swearing allegiance to the Constitution.

Long pointed out that many of the Confederates were members of the Ku Klux Klan. “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.” Long’s words fell on deaf ears. The bill passed anyway. But Long’s words were reported far and wide in major newspapers.

Long left Congress when his term expired on March 3, 1871. (Georgia didn’t elect another Black congressman until Andrew Young in 1972!) Long returned to his tailoring business and served as a delegate to the Republican National Conventions from 1872 to 1880. Long left politics altogether in the 1880s, per the Archives. He remained self-employed until his death in Georgia on Feb. 4, 1901.

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