How Many Black Senators Have There Been?

Your News Companion by Ben Mathis-Lilley
Dec. 17 2012 1:01 PM

Tim Scott's Appointment Is Historic but Nothing Like What a 2014 Win Would Be

Tim Scott shakes hands with House Majority Whip Kevin McCarthy (R-Calif.) after the House of Representatives votes on the Budget Control Act at the U.S. Capitol on July 29, 2011, in Washington

Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images.

South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley made it official this afternoon by tapping Republican Rep. Tim Scott to replace Jim DeMint in the Senate. The move is a historic one because, as the Washington Post points out, Scott will soon become "the first black senator from the South since Reconstruction."

Josh Voorhees Josh Voorhees

Josh Voorhees is a Slate senior writer. He lives in Iowa City. 

That may have you wondering if, as that sentence seems to apply, there was an abundance of black lawmakers in the Senate from the South or anywhere else before or during Reconstruction. The answer in short: No, there wasn't. In fact, while Scott's appointment is largely being billed as a historic development for the the South in general and the GOP in specific, it also is quite noteworthy for the nation as a whole. Scott will soon become the only African-American serving in the U.S. Senate and just the seventh ever black senator from any region of the country.


Still, Scott will face a potentially much larger history-making moment in 2014, when South Carolinians will vote in a special election to decide whether to let him serve out the final two years of DeMint's term. A special-election victory would make him the first African-American sent to the Senate directly by voters in the South.

The topic came up back in 2004 when an Illinois politician by the name of Barack Obama (maybe you've heard of him?) was on his way to becoming only the third black senator from any region since Reconstruction. Here's how the Explainer broke down the history then:

[T]wo African-Americans were elected to the Senate during the post-Civil War occupation of the South. The first was Hiram Rhoades Revels, a Mississippi state senator who was selected in 1870 to fill the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, who'd left to become president of the defunct Confederacy. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment in 1913, senators were chosen by state legislatures rather than a popular vote. And at that time, the Mississippi state legislature included a handful of African-Americans and was dominated by Republican carpetbaggers, northerners who'd come South to get involved in politics. Their election of Revels to Davis' former Senate seat was a symbol of the Republicans' desire for the postbellum South to accept the tolerant precepts of the 13th14th, and 15th Amendments.

Since he was only a temporary appointment to serve out the remainder of Davis' term, Revels spent just one year in the upper chamber. The first African-American to serve a full six-year term was Blanche K. Bruce, who was elected in 1874, also by the Mississippi state legislature during Reconstruction. The following year, however, Republicans lost control of the state legislature and the new Democrat-controlled legislature replaced Bruce with a white senator when his term expired in 1881. With Reconstruction over, nearly a century would pass before another African-American would serve in the U.S. Senate.*

Here's a full list of African-Americans who have served in the upper chamber, via the Senate website. As you can see, it's a short one:

  1. Hiram Revels (R-Miss.) 1870-71
  2. Blanche Bruce (R-Miss.) 1875-1881
  3. Edward Brooke (R-Mass.) 1967-1979
  4. Carol Mosely Braun (D-Ill.) 1993-1999
  5. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) 2005-2008
  6. Roland Burris (D-Ill.) 2009-2010

Burris, like Revels and Scott, was appointed as a temporary successor to serve out the remainder of a term, in his case Obama's. Scott gets a free ticket to the Senate, but only until 2014 when he'll have to win a special election to serve out the remaining two years of DeMint's term, and then a regular election in 2016 if he hopes to stay on longer. If he wins either, that's when the real history will be made: He'd become only the fourth African-American ever to win a popular-vote election for a U.S. Senate seat, and the first to do so in the South.

For those looking for a little more info on Scott can check out this National Journal profile on the congressman from earlier this year.

***Follow @JoshVoorhees and the rest of the @slatest team on Twitter.***

*Correction: An earlier version of this post misstated how much time passed between the Reconstruction-era senators and when Edward Brooke was elected to the Senate. Due to a typo, the post also had the years of Bruce's term wrong. He served from 1875-1881, not 1775-1881.

This post was updated at 1:10 p.m. with additional analysis.


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