Obama Joins the Society of ‘Firsts’

Posted January 16, 2009 at 5:53pm

As the first black president, Barack Obama has certainly hit one historical high point. But a look at history shows that he’s actually one of many African-Americans who have been first in the realm of government.

Obama regularly compares himself to Abraham Lincoln in an attempt to link his imminent presidency to the troubles the Civil War president faced, but he might have more in common with the first black U.S. Senator than the 16th president.

In 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels (R) became the first black person to serve in the Senate. He was biracial, known to be an eloquent speaker, and also famous for his ability to reach compromise. However, Revels represented Mississippi during the Reconstruction period for only one year and was elected to the Senate by the Mississippi state Legislature.

The same year that Revels was sent to the Senate, Joseph Rainey (R-S.C.) was the first black person elected to the House of Representatives and the first black Member to be directly elected to Congress.

While Revels and Rainey broke ground in Congress, there were many others who can claim “firsts” of their own. Here are a few:

• In the 45th Congress, Blanche K. Bruce (R-Miss.) was the first African-American to chair a committee in 1879 and the first to serve a full term in the Senate. Bruce presided over the Senate Select Committee on the Mississippi River.

• In 1901, Booker T. Washington was the first black person invited to dine at the White House. President Theodore Roosevelt invited Washington to the presidential residence as his guest of honor.

• Besides Obama, the state of Illinois has produced several black milestones. Rep. Oscar Stanton De Priest (R) was the first African-American to be elected to the House after the Reconstruction years. He first served in the people’s chamber in 1929.

• Illinois also produced Arthur W. Mitchell, the first black Democrat elected to the House in 1934.

• In 1949, William Levi Dawson (D-Ill.) became the first African-American to chair a standing House committee, Expenditures in the Executive Departments, presently the Oversight and Government Reform Committee.

• In 1960, the Rev. Clennon King was the first black presidential candidate. King ran on the Independent Afro-American ticket and was nicknamed “the black Don Quixote.”

• In the Senate, there had not been a post-Reconstruction African-American until 1966, when Edward Brooke was elected as a Republican in Massachusetts. Brooke was also the first black Senator to be elected by popular vote. Before 1913, Senators were elected by their state legislatures.

• Also in 1966, President Lyndon Johnson made Robert C. Weaver the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s first secretary. It was the first time an African-American served in the Cabinet.

• The Rev. Jesse Jackson, a civil rights leader, was the first African-American to win a presidential primary and caucus during the Democratic nomination contest. Jackson won the District of Columbia, South Carolina, Virginia and one of two separate Mississippi races in 1984.

• Colin Powell was the first African-American to become chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in 1989, appointed by President George H.W. Bush.

• President George W. Bush made Powell the first black secretary of State in his first term in 2001. Current Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice was the first black woman to serve in this position in 2005 as well as the first black woman to be appointed the president’s national security adviser in 2001.

• When Democrats took back the majority in the House in 2006, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (Calif.) tapped Lorraine Miller to become the chamber’s first black Clerk. The Clerk manages the day-to-day operations in the House.

• And now in 2009, Eric Holder could be the first African-American to head the Justice Department.