10 Black U.S. Senators Who Walked So Rev. Raphael Warnock Could Run
From a formerly enslaved person to the man who'd go on to become the first Black U.S. President, these individuals have been the only Black people to represent their states in the Senate.
January 12, 2021 at 9:42 pm
With his victory, Warnock became the first Black person to represent the state of Georgia as a United States Senator. He also became only the 11th Black member of the Senate in the entire history of the United States. As Warnock prepares to take his seat on Capitol Hill, it’s important to remember the individuals who paved the way for him.
Here are some things you should know about the only 10 Black U.S. Senators in American history.
Hiram Revels, Republican Senator from Mississippi, 1870-1871
Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first Black person to serve in either chamber of the U.S. Congress, had an unusual and impressive background for the time. Born into a free North Carolina family in 1827, Revels obtained both college and seminary education and became a minister. During the Civil War, he served as an army chaplain and helped recruit Black soldiers for the Union. Moving to Mississippi after the war, Revels' talent and status as a newcomer helped him move up the ranks in local politics. An opening prayer given by Revels to the Mississippi state legislature in 1870 caused his star to rise.
"That prayer,—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the Senate Chamber,—made Revels a United States Senator," Congressman John Lynch wrote. "He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments."
Later that year, Revels was chosen by the Mississippi legislature to fill a Senate seat that had remained vacant since the Civil War. Despite objections from several sitting senators who argued that a Black man was not a citizen, and thus could not be a senator, Revels took up his seat representing Mississippi from 1870-1871. After serving in Washington, Revels returned to Mississippi, where he founded Alcorn State University.
Blanche K. Bruce, Republican Senator from Mississippi, 1875-1881
Blanche Bruce was born into slavery in Virginia, in 1941, making him the only formerly enslaved person to serve in the U.S. Senate. Bruce escaped during the Civil War and eventually settled in Mississippi. As noted in his Senate profile, during his time in Congress he “supported desegregation of the army, protection of African American voting rights, and more humane treatment of Native Americans.”
After serving one term in the Senate, Bruce left Congress but served in several positions in President James A. Garfield's administration. He enjoyed friendships with President Ulysses S. Grant, Booker T Washington and Frederick Douglass. Bruce even received several votes to be the vice-presidential candidate for the Republican Party in 1888, a nomination that eventually went to Benjamin Harrison. Sadly, with the end of Reconstruction and widespread disenfranchisement of Black Americans throughout the South, it would be over 85 years before another Black senator held office.
Edward Brooke, Republican Senator from Massachusetts, 1967-1979
Brooke was the first Black person to be voted into the Senate. A Washington, D.C. native and alumnus of Howard University, Brooke served during World War II, having signed up for the army in response to the 1941 attack on Pearl Harbor. It was his time in the army that first brought Brooke to Massachusetts, where he was stationed in segregated conditions before leaving to fight the war abroad.
Brooke returned to Massachusetts, where he earned a law degree from Boston University and opened up a private firm in Boston's predominantly Black Roxbury neighborhood. After several failed political campaigns, Brooke eventually became Massachusetts Attorney General during the tumultuous 1960s, where he fought discrimination but was criticized by some as being too moderate with regards to civil rights activism. Brooke’s moderate views helped him be elected to the U.S. Senate, where he became a greater champion for civil rights, promoting fair housing, defending the 1965 Voting Rights Act against challenges and championing the declaration of Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday as a holiday.
Carol Moseley Braun, Democratic Senator from Illinois, 1993-1999
Carol Moseley Braun was born and raised in Illinois and followed her degrees from the University of Illinois and the University of Chicago Law School to launch a career as a prosecutor and then as a politician. After being elected in 1992, she became both the first female Senator from Illinois and the first Black woman to serve in the U.S. Senate. While in the Senate, she helped author and pass several pieces of legislation helping to support women, especially mothers, divorced women and widows.
Among her accomplishments in the Senate were two symbolic victories: helping to change the Senate dress code for women by wearing pants on the Senate floor and denying a design patent renewal to the United Daughters of the Confederacy for their insignia, which included the Confederate flag. After serving in the Senate, Moseley Braun became a U.S. ambassador and ran for the 2004 Democratic presidential nomination. She recently emerged as a possible pick by President-elect Joe Biden for Secretary of the Interior.
Barack Obama, Democratic Senator from Illinois, 2005-2008
Amazingly, when former President Barack Obama was elected as the second Black person to represent Illinois in the U.S. Senate, he also became only the fifth Black Senator from any state. The son of Ann Dunham, a white American woman from Kansas, and Barack Obama Sr., who came to America from Kenya to study in Hawaii, Barack was born in Honolulu in 1961. By the time he was elected to the Senate, he had graduated from Columbia University and Harvard Law School and worked as a community organizer in Chicago and an Illinois state senator. He'd also given a transcendent keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention that made him a rising star within the party.
He, of course, went on to become the 2008 Democratic presidential nominee, winning the election in November to become the country’s first and so far only Black president.
Roland Burris, Democratic Senator from Illinois, 2008-2010
After President-elect Obama resigned from the Senate, a seasoned public servant was chosen to temporarily fill his seat. Roland Burris, a Howard Law graduate, had served in many roles in government. Among other achievements, he had been the first Black elected official in the state of Illinois when he was elected comptroller in 1978.
A 2008 New York Times profile called Burris “a Low-Key Pioneer” and noted the respect and stellar reputation he earned through decades of politics in Illinois, a state that was at the time embroiled in various political scandals. In 2020, Burris was inducted into the National Association of State Auditors, Comptrollers and Treasurers Hall of Fame, an organization he helped to found
Tim Scott, Republican Senator from South Carolina, 2013-present
The first Black Senator to represent a southern state since Reconstruction, Tim Scott served in the U.S. House of Representatives from 2011 until 2013, when he was selected to replace retiring Senator Jim DeMint. Scott subsequently won the election to finish DeMint’s term, and later won his own full term in 2016.
Scott has become one of the most famous Black politicians within the Republican Party and has attempted to move the GOP to address issues of racial justice, such as by sponsoring the Republican version of the Justice in Policing Act and working with Democrats Cory Booker and Vice President-elect Kamala Harris to pass long-delayed federal anti-lynching legislation. Senator Scott was one of the standout figures of the 2020 Republican National Convention, giving an inspiring speech on the racial progress that his own family and the country had seen, noting that his family “went from cotton to Congress in one lifetime," as Blavity previously reported.
William “Mo” Cowan, Democratic Senator from Massachusetts, 2013
“Mo” Cowan, as he is commonly known, only served in the U.S. Senate for 5 ½ months, but his short term was nonetheless significant. Appointed to replace John Kerry, who left the Senate to become Secretary of State, Cowan served alongside Senator Scott – the first time that two Black people served together in the Senate.
Prior to his Senate term, Cowan worked as a prominent lawyer and then served in the administration of Massachusetts Gov. Deval Patrick, who appointed him to replace Kerry. Since serving in the Senate, Cowan has returned to private practice and has been an executive for General Electric. He was also chosen as a Fellow at Harvard University’s Institute of Politics.
Cory Booker, Democratic Senator from New Jersey, 2013-present
Cory Booker holds a very impressive academic resume; he is an alum of Stanford University and Yale Law, and he studied at Oxford University as a Rhodes Scholar. Booker grew up in New Jersey, living in Newark during part of his time at Yale. He eventually became the mayor of Newark, where he gained a reputation as a man of the people who personally connected to and met the needs of his constituents – he once famously went out and personally shoveled snow for residents who requested help through social media.
In 2013, Booker won a special election for an open Senate seat from New Jersey and has represented the state ever since. Among his legislative achievements, he has championed multiple criminal justice reform bills, including the First Step Act that was signed into law by President Donald Trump.
Kamala Harris, Democratic Senator from California, 2017-present
Kamala Harris grew up in Oakland, California, the daughter of immigrants from Jamaica and India, respectively. After attending Howard University and the University of California Hastings College of the Law, she became a prosecutor in her home state, moving up the ranks to become district attorney of San Francisco and then-Attorney General of California. She won the election to Senate, taking office in 2017. She joined Scott and Booker, making her tenure the first time that three Black senators served together.
Harris ran as a candidate for the Democratic nomination for President of the United States. She dropped out of the race in December 2019 but was chosen in August 2020 to be the running mate of nominee Joe Biden which energized the Democratic campaign. The Biden-Harris ticket defeated incumbent President Trump in the 2020 election, and Harris will soon leave the Senate to assume her new role as Vice President of the United States; she will be the first: woman, Black American and Indian American to serve in that role.