When Barack Obama was elected to the office of President of the United States in November 2008, black journalists - hardened veterans who long ago learned to keep their emotions in tack when the red light comes on - could not stop the flow of their tears of joy.
150 years ago, similar tears of joy also streamed down the faces of folks who thought they would never see a human being of color hold a high office, or any office for that matter.
We’re talking about what Eric Foner called “Freedom’s Lawmakers.” As part of Reconstruction, black men were either elected or appointed to offices ranging from city council to United States Senator. Between 1865 and 1876, about two thousand held office in the South.
Foner provides more than 1,500 profiles. A bonus is the number of photographs, never easy to find in that era. These are important because often times, newspapers and cartoonists used stereotypical images of African-Americans.
I’ve been going through the bios he researched. It’s one amazing story after another. Many of these men were courageous, a brave face needed when the hooded mobs plotted their ways of hate, and sadly, used them in violent ways.
And to those who were saying back then that the former slaves would not be able to handle their freedom - hogwash. These men slammed the door on that ignorance in a hurry. They became ministers and merchants, teachers and business owners, editors and phyicians. They produced firsts, such as Macon Allen of South Carolina who became the first black American licensed to practice law. Martin R. Delany, born in Charles Town, became the first black commissioned officer in the U.S. Army during the Civil War, earning the gold leafs of a Major. John W. Menard was the first black person to speak on the floor of Congress.
Free and freed, these men were eloquent. Thomas Bayne said, “Traitors shall not dictate or prescribe to us the terms or conditions of our citizenship.”
The book has several handy dandy indexes. Looking at Virginia, one can find Alexandria’s own George L. Seaton, whose historic home at 404 S. Royal Street has an historic marker. Born in Alexandria and educated in the District of Columbia, Seaton was the largest black grocer in Alexandria and was worth $100,000.
Alexandrians will also want to check out Fields Cook. His bio doesn’t mention it, but he came to Alexandria when he was 56. He was a pastor at the Third Baptist Church as well as Ebenezer Church. Cook passed away in 1897 and according to the Encyclopedia Virginia, was probably buried in the Frederick Douglass Cemetery in Alexandria. Historians also believe he wrote a 32-page manuscript slave narrative.
These men were not perfect, but they served as role models. Sadly, even today, some people continue to use stereotypical images of African Americans. They sell ads and grab attention, but they also reinforce fear-based and prejudicial heuristics and don’t bring us any closer to that more perfect union.
So this is your chance. If you are looking to honor and commemorate someone during the sesquicentennial of Reconstruction, be sure and read this book. We owe it to these “freedom’s lawmakers” who have languished in obscurity long enough.