After a year that saw a national reckoning with the country’s deeply rooted racism, a new exhibit in the House honors and commemorates 150 years of Black representation in the chamber, starting with Joseph Rainey, who blazed a trail for generations of Black House members.
Speaker Nancy Pelosi stopped by the exhibit Friday morning, joined by Majority Whip James E. Clyburn and House Clerk Cheryl Johnson, who both shared details and context beyond what is included in the nine panels of photos, images and documents on display.
“That is just fabulous,” Pelosi said of the large blue panels lining the first-floor hallway on the House side of the Capitol. “This is so timely.”
A video showing the first African American representatives of each state brought surprise and some head-shaking from the three House officials.
“It’s astounding,” Johnson said when Steven Horsford of Nevada flashed onto the screen. Horsford was the first Black person elected to the House from the Silver State, in 2013.
Clyburn, the dean of the South Carolina delegation and former Congressional Black Caucus chairman, pointed out the disproportionate representation of his state throughout the exhibit and shared his own deep knowledge of the history of Black members.
This month marks the 150th anniversary of Rainey joining the House on Dec. 12, 1870. The South Carolinian was nominated to fill out the term of a member who resigned after being charged with selling appointments to U.S. military academies. One month later he was joined by the second Black member, Rep. Jefferson Long of Georgia.
Rainey was also the first Black person to ever preside over the House, which he did four years after being elected to a full term. The opportunity to hold the gavel may have taken Rainey by surprise, according to the clerk.
“It was unexpected,” Johnson told Pelosi and Clyburn. “He wasn’t given any notice.”
After Rainey left the House in 1879, he was nominated to be House clerk, Johnson said. But because his party did not hold the majority, his nomination was unsuccessful. Johnson is the second Black clerk of the House in history.
The exhibit, entitled “Joseph H. Rainey: 150 Years of Black Americans Elected to Congress,” chronicles the impact of Black lawmakers from the 1870s to the 1970s.
In a Dear Colleague letter to the House on Friday, Johnson announced the opening of the exhibit, noting the 150-year anniversary and ongoing importance of the issues highlighted in the displays.
“The power and importance of voting rights are at the heart of the exhibition, which tells this tumultuous history through objects, images, documents, and the words of African-American Members of Congress who lived and legislated through it,” writes Johnson.
Clyburn said of the Black lawmakers elected during the Reconstruction period after the Civil War, half were from his home state.
“Eight were from South Carolina,” he said, noting he would define the period of Reconstruction a little differently from the exhibit, which lists only six.
“History can only inform us, if we know that history,” Clyburn said in a statement Friday. “This exhibit reminds us to celebrate those whose shoulders we stand upon and to learn the lessons from the long arc of the Black experience in this august body.”
An anti-lynching petition from 1900 is featured, a precursor to a bill the House passed this February that would make lynching a federal hate crime, more than a century since the first such measure was introduced in Congress. Lawmakers had tried, and failed, to pass anti-lynching bills nearly 200 times before then.
As they moved into the 20th century along the exhibit’s timeline, Pelosi and Clyburn each shared their own personal experiences.
A photo of Rep. Barbara Jordan of Texas prompted Pelosi to talk about hearing her speak at the 1976 Democratic convention, where Pelosi was a delegate for Jerry Brown.
While convention delegates often don’t pay much attention to the laundry list of speeches, the crowd hushed when Jordan spoke.
“She owned the convention,” Pelosi said. “She shut it down.”
A photo of the signing of the Civil Rights Act drew Clyburn’s attention, prompting him to reflect on the civil rights era.
“I was so enamored with that whole period of time,” he said.
Clyburn was active in the movement, leading some of the first sit-ins in South Carolina. After being arrested during one of the demonstrations, he met his wife, Emily, in jail.
A poster of the late Rep. John Lewis, a civil rights hero who died earlier this year, is still standing, draped in black cloth just a few yards down the hallway from the exhibit.
Pausing to look at a photo of the early days of the Congressional Black Caucus, Pelosi pointed out which members were still around when she came to the House in 1987.
“As Speaker, it has long been my priority to ensure that the halls of the United States Capitol reflect the full, vibrant and diverse portrait of American history, and this special exhibition will help finally share the story of Congressman Rainey, which has for too long and for too many gone untold,” Pelosi said in a statement. “This exhibition will also help inform and inspire the future — engaging the next generation of voting rights and civil rights champions.”
Pelosi, Clyburn and Johnson spent about 15 minutes perusing the exhibit and chatting with each other about the history and its impact on the present.
“It’s where people can see it,” Pelosi noted of the exhibit, in contrast to portraits and other displays tucked into private spaces like the Speaker’s Lobby.
But visitors, tour groups and almost anyone without a congressional ID have been barred from the Capitol since mid-March, when the threat of the COVID-19 pandemic led congressional leaders to partially close the usually public building. Even most staff are working remotely and not crisscrossing the hallways.
As case numbers continue to rise across the country, it is not yet clear when tourists, lobbyists and others will return to the Capitol to learn about the history and gaze up at the Rotunda.
On the wall across from the exhibit hangs an iconic portrait of Shirley Chisholm, the first African American woman elected to the House. The colorful painting hung there long before the Rainey exhibit was installed, but a new panel was added below with details of her trailblazing legacy.
“Doesn’t that just capture her completely? That look?” Pelosi asked of Chisholm’s stern expression behind her cat eye glasses and crossed arms.
“She’s looking over it,” said Pelosi, gesturing across the hall to the panels chronicling the legacy of Black lawmakers in the House.