For Congressional Black Caucus Chairman Cedric L. Richmond, this month is about teaching. First celebrated in 1926 as a weeklong tribute to black history and culture and expanded to a monthlong honor in 1976, Black History Month is a time of reflection and festivity for many African-Americans. Roll Call interviewed Richmond and several other lawmakers and Capitol Hill figures, such as Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, to find out what the intersection of black history and life in Congress and the Capitol building itself means to them.
Watch interviews and the video, “Black History and America’s Capitol,” which combines all these talks, at rollcall.com/black-history-month. Richmond’s full discussion with Roll Call is below.
This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.Roll Call: Congressman Richmond, you represent the city of New Orleans — a city that’s very important to black history and culture — and now you serve that city here in Washington, another city that’s integral to black culture and identity. Do you see similarities between the two places?
Richmond: Well, in terms of the culture and people, yes. But in terms of the atmosphere, no. My best way to describe it is that people in D.C. live so they can work and people in New Orleans work so that they can live. And we enjoy our culture and music and our food a lot more than people in D.C., although they do have a lot of culture and food and they have the monuments and all these great places. It just seems that they get caught in work so much, as opposed to Louisiana, where we really enjoy our spare time. Whether it’s fishing or hunting; we have everything from the catfish festival to the andouille festival to the gumbo festival to the jazz festival — Essence Festival. So we enjoy our festivities and I think that’s probably the biggest difference. But in terms of the people and the culture and the significance — a lot of similarities.
Roll Call Talks with Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, CBC Chair
RC: You’re the chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and there’s a long line of African-Americans dating back to the 19th century in Congress. Who are some of the members of Congress who have inspired you in your service, knowing that you have this place now in history, representing the interests of black members of Congress?
Richmond: There’s been so many. You can start with Shirley Chisholm. You can start with John Conyers, who [is] the only member of Congress who will ever be able to say that he was endorsed by both Martin Luther King and Barack Obama. And Charlie Rangel and then you have to look at Jim Clyburn and Bennie Thompson, who are newer members but are very significant, as well as Marcia Fudge and the Maxine Waters’ of the world, who have given so much and have been fighting for so long. But the thing I admire about them the most is that they’re still on the battlefield fighting. And then you have members like Eddie Bernice Johnson, who is just a class act and you get to see her in all her grace and passion and it just reminds you that we’ve come a very long way but we have the capacity and the energy to keep fighting for what’s important to us.
RC: When you walk through the halls of Congress, and we’re surrounded by the literature and the artwork, what are some of the things that speak to you as representative of black history and culture?
Richmond: Just knowing that it’s a place that’s come so far. Whether we talk about its construction by slaves or we talk about the fact that this building in all of its glory has created some very dark times for African-Americans. And as you look at the Supreme Court across the street and the Supreme Court that was in this building, it reaffirms … some of the worst things that ever happened to African Americans. And then you walk by a picture of Shirley Chisholm or Rosa Parks or Martin Luther King and you see that it also holds some of the images of our best and our progress that we’ve made. And then you [see] that we still have, unfortunately, a lot of work to do to even fulfill some of the promises of King’s day and Chisholm and others.
Black History and America’s Capitol
RC: You mentioned that slaves constructed the Capitol and there’s a marker in the Capitol Visitor Center marking that. Flash forward a couple hundred years and Obama becomes a former president and lifts off in a military helicopter not too far from Emancipation Hall. What was going through your mind on that day when Obama left the building?
Richmond: That’s one of the reasons I wanted to be at the inauguration. One of the reasons for a lot of people was to say hello to the new guy, but not for me. I was there strictly to say goodbye to the old guy and to thank the president for eight years of hard work, of grace, of class, and not embarrassing the country, and increasing our standing around the world. And to see him, not far from Emancipation Hall, get in what would be Marine One and fly off, was very important and it was an emotional moment because it reminds you that we can achieve anything. But when you turn around and look the other way, you know that we still have a lot of fighting that we’re going to have to do. … I think what Black History Month is all about is teaching young people our past and celebrating our accomplishments. What it does is give them the knowledge to know that we can overcome any hurdle that we’re faced with. That’s why it’s so important to teach our young kids African-American history so that they know when they’re faced with challenges or mountains that they have the ability to climb it and the ability to overcome. That’s what I think, to me, is most important about Black History Month.