Famous political cartoonist Thomas Nast depicted the first African Americans ever elected to Congress in one of his many drawings, published by Currier and Ives in 1872. Significantly, these men were elected in southern states after the conclusion of the Civil War, as Reconstruction in the South was being undertaken and during which time the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments were passed abolishing slavery and expanding the rights of freed slaves. Freed men now had the ability to vote and have a say in the political world, and they used this new found power to elect these men to office.
Nast’s Portayal of the Congressmen
In the drawing, Nast attempts to portray the black Congressmen in a dignified manner, much in the same way that that white Congressmen would be. This runs counter to the popular imagery of the time, which usually used a discriminatory portrayal of African Americans. The way in which Nast projects the congressmen helped to add a sense of gravity and reality to the work, as most contemporary political cartoons employed humor, hyperbole, and satire. It’s a distinction that sets this particular drawing apart from many of the other cartoons and drawings by Nast.
Historical Significance of the First African American Congressmen
This drawing is very significant from a historical standpoint in that it represents the drastic change that was occurring in the United States at this point in history. Slavery had ended and African Americans were able to venture into the public sphere much more so than in the past. The significance of the drawing is amplified in that newspapers were about the only source of news in this period, and photography as we know it did not exist. Therefore an artist’s depiction was likely the only image of these black members of Congress available to the common citizen.
Before the Emancipation Proclamation and the social and political reform that the Civil War brought, it would have been absolutely unthinkable for a black man to run for public office, much less actually win. However as Reconstruction progressed and more emphasis was put on equality, African Americans were able to pursue a much wider range of social and political positions, as represented by this drawing of the black Congressmen. This change was instrumental to inspiring other minorities, giving them the confidence to attempt challenges previously thought impossible. It also contributed to the diversity of the American political system which has improved its representative ability and dedication to racial equality.