The claim: Historians do not teach that the first Black members of Congress were Republicans
A viral meme, posted on Instagram, features a well-known lithograph of the first Black members of Congress, with a bold statement.
“History not taught,” it says. “The first 23 Black congressmen were Republican.”
“You won’t be taught this,” wrote Ryan Fournier, the co-chair of Students for Trump, whose watermark appears on the meme, on his Instagram account. “The Republicans were the anti-slavery party.”
It is mostly accurate that the Republican Party formed to oppose the extension of slavery, although up until the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, Abraham Lincoln and other Republicans pledged not to interfere with slavery in states where it existed. And the first 23 African Americans in Congress did belong to the Republican Party, due to the GOP’s support of voting rights and the Democratic Party’s embrace of white supremacy.
But the idea that Reconstruction-era historians hid those facts – key to understanding the period – is false.
“This is just front and center in what we teach all the time,” said Kate Masur, a professor of history at Northwestern University who has written extensively about Reconstruction. “It’s not a big secret.”
A message seeking comment was sent to Fournier on Wednesday.
Neither the Democratic nor the Republican parties of today are like their 19th century forebearers. By the late 1960s, the national Democratic Party had abandoned its former support for legal segregation and enjoyed strong support from Black voters, while Republicans had embraced a white backlash to voting and civil rights to build their party in the South.
“One has to wrap your mind around the fact parties evolve, and they change, and they have points of view and they’re not same in one century as they are in another,” said Eric Foner, a professor of history at Columbia University who is considered the preeminent scholar of the Reconstruction period.
Political parties and a complicated history with race
Black people who could vote tended to support the Republican Party from the 1860s to about the mid-1930s. There were push-and-pull aspects to this. Republicans pledged to protect voting rights. African Americans viewed the party as the only vessel for their goals: Frederick Douglass said, “The Republican Party is the ship; all else is the sea.”
And the sea was perilous. The Democratic Party for most of the 19th century was a white supremacist organization that gave no welcome to Black Americans. A conservative group of politicians known as the Bourbons controlled Southern Democratic parties. For instance, well into the 20th century, the official name of Alabama’s dominant organization was the Democratic and Conservative Party of Alabama.
The Bourbons called their Republican opponents “radicals,” whether they warranted the label or not, Masur said.
“The Democrats were often called conservative and embraced that label,” she said. “Many of them were conservative in the sense that they wanted things to be like they were in the past, especially as far as race was concerned.”
Due to violence, most Black politicians favored the deployment of federal troops and marshals to protect Black voters in the South. Speaking to the U.S. House of Representatives on June 13, 1876, John R. Lynch, an African American congressman from Mississippi who served three terms in the chamber, said the “Bourbon element” among Democrats “renders life, liberty, and property comparatively insecure.”
“In consequence of this intolerance, colored men are forced to vote for the candidate of the Republican Party, however objectionable to them some of these candidates may be, unless they are prevented from doing so by violence and intimidation,” he said.
Lynch’s statement hinted at racial tensions within the GOP, particularly in Southern states. White members of the GOP solicited Black votes but often dragged their feet on issues of importance to African Americans. Black Southern politicians managed to achieve some goals – most notably the expansion of public education – but often found themselves frustrated by their white colleagues’ hesitancy on other matters, like civil rights. And despite the critical importance of Black voters to the Southern GOP, white Republicans monopolized major political offices.
“Some of them did not have a problem sharing power with Black people,” Masur said. “But a lot did have a problem with that idea. They might think it’s OK for Black men to vote, but they really don’t want them to hold power.”
Bourbon Democrats had completely taken over Southern governments by 1877, and while Black men continued to vote and hold office through much of the South in the following decade, the march toward Jim Crow had begun.
Black people kept civil rights at GOP forefront in late 19th century
African Americans remained active in the Republican Party and, for a time, kept voting and civil rights at the forefront of the party’s agenda. When the U.S. Supreme Court struck down the 1875 Civil Rights Act in 1883, several Northern state governments controlled by Republicans created their own civil rights laws. John W.E. Thomas, a former enslaved person who was the first African American elected to the Illinois General Assembly, introduced the 1885 Illinois Civil Rights Act.
But white Southern intransigence made it impossible to enact any meaningful protections at the federal level. That, combined with the rise of a new generation of white Republicans more interested in big business than racial equality, cooled GOP ardor for Black civil rights.
“Republicans started taking the Black vote for granted, and the Republicans were always divided,” Foner said. “There were those who said, ‘We’ve really got to defend the Black vote in the South.’ And others said ‘No, no, we’ve got to appeal to the business-minded voter in South as the party of business, the party of growth.’”
The Great Migration of African Americans from the South, which began just before the United States’ entry into World War I, brought many Black people into cities where they could vote freely and put them in touch with local Democratic organizations that slowly realized the potential of the Black vote.
The devastation of the Great Depression, combined with the promises of programs of the New Deal, led Black voters into the Democratic Party. The vast majority of Black voters supported Franklin D. Roosevelt for president in 1936. The passage of the Civil Rights Act in 1964 and the Voting Rights Act in 1965 led to an even greater shift toward Democrats, who sponsored both measures.
Most Northern Republicans voted for both acts, but Barry Goldwater’s 1964 presidential campaign, and Richard Nixon’s later embrace of what was known as the “Southern strategy,” appealed to whites who resented or opposed demands for voting and civil rights, further boosting Black support for Democrats.
“Gerald Ford might have flirted with 15%, but since Gerald Ford, since Ronald Reagan, the party has solidified its embrace of what had been previously been the Solid South, the Solid white South,” said Vincent Hutchings, a professor of political science at the University of Michigan.
Fact check: The Irish were indentured servants, not slaves
In fact, what may be more illustrative of the history of the party is that while the first 23 African American members of Congress were Republican, only nine of the next 140 Black members of Congress belonged to the GOP.
Our ruling: Partly false
We rate this claim PARTLY FALSE based on our research. It is true that the first 23 Black members of Congress were Republicans. But our research shows that claim simplifies and misleads about a complicated history and ignores nearly a century in which both Democrats and Republicans underwent major changes as parties regionally and nationally. It is also false to claim that the Republican Party’s early history and positions on African Americans and slavery are not taught. Historians of Reconstruction routinely teach the racial dynamics of Republicans and Democrats during the Reconstruction period.
Our fact-check sources:
Interview with Eric Foner, professor of history at Columbia University
Interview with Vincent Hutchings, professor of political science at the University of Michigan
Interview with Kate Masur, associate professor of history at Northwestern University.
U.S. Rep. John R. Lynch’s speech on the “Southern Question” can be found in the Congressional Record for June 13, 1876.
Frederick Douglass’ quote on the 19th century Republican Party can be found here
The Alabama Democratic Party was referred to as the Democratic and Conservative Party of Alabama as late as 1918: see the May 24, 1918 Montgomery Advertiser.
A description of the 1885 Illinois Civil Rights Act can be found here.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Fact check: Democrats, Republicans and a complicated history on race