John Willis Menard: First African-American Elected to Congress

Menard was the first African-American elected to Congress
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Photo: Wikimedia Commons

John Willis Menard, abolitionist, author, journalist and politician, was born in 1838 in Kaskaskia, Illinois, to French Creole parents. He was the first African-American elected to Congress, but was not seated after a dispute over the election results. Menard attended Iberia College, an abolitionist school in Iberia, Ohio.

Twenty-two year old Menard expressed his abolitionist views in his widely read 1860 publication, An Address to the Free Colored People of Illinois. During the Civil War, he became the first African-American to serve as a clerk in the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C. While there, President Abraham Lincoln dispatched him to research British Honduras (now Belize) as a possible colony for the African-American population.

At the beginning of Reconstruction, Menard moved to New Orleans, Louisiana, where he served as inspector of customs in the city and later as a commissioner of streets. He also published The Radical Standard, a civil rights advocacy newspaper.

In 1868, during a special election in Louisiana to fill an unexpired term of a deceased congressman, Menard became the first African-American elected to Congress. When his opponent contested the outcome, Menard appealed his case on the floor of the House of Representatives, the first African-American to address the chamber while in session. The Committee of Elections ruled in favor of the opponent, although Menard was financially compensated, receiving the same salary that he would have earned as a legislator.

In 1871, Menard relocated to Jacksonville, Florida. He was appointed to fill a vacated seat in the Florida House of Representatives in 1873 but lost the subsequent election. In 1879, he published Lays in Summer Lands (1879), a popular collection of civil rights poems. And he founded the Key West News and the Florida News (later named Southern Leader) with his son-in-law Thomas V. Gibbs. Together they advocated a non-violent approach to African-American rights and challenged the emerging pattern of racial segregation in Florida and the South.

In 1889, Menard relocated with his wife and three children to Washington, D.C., where he served as a clerk in the census office and founded the National American magazine. Still politically active, he asked President Harrison to allocate some land for Blacks in the West so that they could move out of the South. He died in 1893 at the age of 54.

Menard was the first African-American elected to Congress when on November 3, 1868 he received the majority of votes to fill the unexpired term of Louisiana Second District Congressman James Mann. On the strength of the vote Menard went to Washington to be seated. However his opponent Caleb Hunt challenged the election. The Committee on Elections of the U.S. House of Representatives refused to seat either candidate.

Menard’s speech to the Congress on February 23, 1869, which appears below, was part of his unsuccessful effort to be seated.

"Mr. Speaker: I appear here more to acknowledge this high privilege than to make an argument before this House. It was certainly not my intention at first to take any part in this case at all; but as I have been sent here by the votes of nearly nine thousand electors, I would feel myself recreant to the duty imposed upon me if I did not defend their rights on this floor.

"I wish it to be well understood, before I go further that in the disposition of this case I do not expect, nor do I ask, that there shall be any favor shown me on account of my race, or the former condition of that race. I wish the case to be decided on its own merits and nothing else.

"As I said before the Committee of Election, Mr. Hunt, who contests my seat, is not properly a contestant before this House, for the reason that he has not complied with the law of Congress in serving notice upon me of his intention to contest my seat. The returns of the Board of Canvassers of the State of Louisiana were published officially on the twenty-fifth of November, and the gentleman had sufficient time to comply with the law of Congress if he had chosen to do so. When Congress convened on the seventh of December, he presented to the Speaker of this House a protest against my taking my seat. I did not know the nature of that protest until about the middle of January, when the case was called up before the committee.

"Upon this point of notice I desire to call the attention of the House to this fact: that General Sheldon, who ran on the same ticket that I did as a candidate for the Forty-first Congress, was declared to be elected upon the same grounds that I was, and he wrote to the Chairman of the Committee of Elections to find out his opinion with regard to this question of notice. Mr. Hunt, it seems, failed to give him notice also; and I understood when I was last in New Orleans that it is the opinion of the Chairman of the Committee of Elections that the case of Mr. Sheldon is a very clear one. I am very sorry that the Chairman of the Committee of Elections did not give me the benefit of that opinion.

"I am of opinion that when Congress enacted that law it certainly intended that every contestant should comply with its requirements, and I can see no reason why the law should be set aside in this case any more than in any other; and I think that if Mr. Hunt did not know the law of Congress, he was a very poor subject to be sent to Congress.

"Now, sir, the Committee of Elections, in their report, have cited the New Hampshire case of Perkins vs. Morrison; but they take as a precedent the action of the minority of the committee in that case—which is very strange, indeed—and they give us no benefit from the report of the majority of that committee. I ask the Clerk to read from that majority report the passage which I have marked…. Mr. Speaker, in the matter of redistricting the State of Louisiana, the Governor had no authority of law whatever to send his precept for an election to fill this vacancy to any other district than the new one made by the Legislature on the twenty-second of August, eighteen hundred and sixty-eight. He could not have ordered an election to fill this vacancy under a law which had not been repealed.

"There is another point to which I wish to call the attention of this House. The State was redistricted before Colonel Mann died. Therefore, at the time when he died his district was intact, and no change was made in it after his death. And the voters in that portion of the new district, who were formerly within the districts that elected Mr. Newsham and Mr. Vidal to the House were no longer constituents of those gentlemen, but had become the constituents of Mr. Mann. So far as the law is concerned, Mr. Mann represented the new district as it now stands. And when he died, and there was a vacancy, but the election had to be held by law within the territorial limits of the new district. The Legislature of Louisiana, according to the constitution of the United States, had the power to change the districts. Therefore the Governor was, by the new redistricting act, to order an election to fill the vacancy within the new district.

"Now, I would call attention to another point. If it be admitted that the election was legal, and that the Legislature had full power to create new districts, I ask a moment’s attention while I compare the vote on the third of November with the vote cast in the preceding April election on the ratification of the constitution. In the first, second, third, tenth and eleventh wards of the city of New Orleans, which are included in the new Second Congressional District, the vote for the constitution in April was 7,373. In the same ward on the third November there were only 125 votes; showing a falling off of 7,248 votes in the space of six months.

"In the parish of Jefferson, on the seventeenth and eighteenth days of April, eighteen hundred and sixty-eight, the votes for the constitution were 3,133. On the third of November following, the Republican votes in that parish were only 662; showing a falling off in six months of 2,470 votes. This is sufficient to show to any reasonable person that the loyal voters in this portion of the district were deprived of the right to go to the polls and cast their ballots. Now, this falling off was caused by the intimidations and threats made and the frauds practiced in those parishes.

"And I now ask Congress, on behalf of the loyal people of my district, to set aside the returns of votes from those parishes, so as to give the rebels there no more encouragement for their systematic plan of fraud and intimidation. And if the votes of those tow parishes are thrown out, I will then have, in the remainder of the district, a majority over Mr. Hunt, my contestant, of 3,341 votes. And as I hold the certificate of election from the Governor, I hold that I should be recognized and admitted to this body as the legal Representative of the district in which a vacancy was created by the death of my predecessor, Mr. Mann.

"There is no evidence whatever that there was any fraud in the election in the remaining five parishes of the district. Our vote in November compares favorably with the vote cast in April for the constitution. And I think Congress should recognize the right of the voters of those parishes to be represented here. Had the same Republican vote been cast in November that was cast in April in the parishes of Orleans and Jefferson, I would still have a majority over Mr. Hunt of several hundred votes.

"It will be noticed that under the new registration for the election of November, there were 20,314 voters registered in the five wards of the city of New Orleans comprised in the Second Congressional District of Louisiana. The total vote in those wards cast at the election, admitting all of them to have been legal, were 11,660, showing that over 8,500 legal voters were deprived of the right to vote in consequence of the condition of things then existing in Louisiana, and I have every reason to believe, judging from the election in April previous, that those 8,500 were Republican voters.

"I ask this House to give these men—most of whom were colored—some consideration, and not allow the rebel votes to be counted against them. If this is done, it is possible that at the next election loyal men will have a chance to express their will through the ballot-box.

"And according to the registration for the parish of Jefferson, there were 5,969 voters, while the total number of votes cast on the third of November was 2,886; showing that in that parish alone there were 3,083 loyal voters who were deprived of their right to vote in consequence of the intimidation and lawlessness there."


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