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5 Black Politicians You Didn’t Learn About in History Class

Photo by Harold Mendoza via Unsplash

In recent years, “erasure” has become a buzzword for observers of politics, art, and education. The term represents the burial of certain narratives, often the ones of marginalized groups, from a larger societal story. 

Erasure becomes especially visible when examining how events, trends, and conflicts of the past are portrayed in schools. The Civil War and its causes, for example, is one of the subjects with notable discrepancies in its depiction across educational institutions. Some textbooks and teachers prioritize issues of states’ rights instead of slavery as the root of the strife, leading to entirely different conceptions of the war as a whole. (Similarly, compare the classification of the Civil War as either the “War of Northern Aggression” versus the “War of the Rebellion.”)

As the Black Lives Matter movement comes to the forefront in our current moment, activists have upheld voting as an indispensable measure of creating political change. In this vein, there are a multitude of Black politicians who have challenged social norms and distinguished themselves by pushing forward the causes they care about. There are several, though, whose names you may have never heard. Who are they?


1. Hiram Revels


Before getting immersed in politics, Revels was an active preacher across the South and the Midwest and also helped to organize groups of Black soldiers during the Civil War. He is perhaps best known for paving the way for other African Americans in politics as the first Black individual in the Senate, where he remained from 1870-1871. During Reconstruction, he advocated for Black Americans’ social and legal equality by working to promote their voting rights and job opportunities. He also took a less retributive view than many of his Republican colleagues on the issue of citizenship for former Confederates. 


2. Blanche Kelso Bruce


A former slave, Bruce was a noted education professional before entering the political scene. He was instrumental in establishing a school for Black students in Missouri, the first of its kind, in the midst of the Civil War. He also served as the superintendent of education in Bolivar County, Mississippi, where he significantly improved the quality of schooling. He joined the Senate in 1875 and completed the full six-year duration of the position, the first Black individual to do so. In an age of forceful prejudice against Native Americans and immigrants from China, he championed these causes as well as social equality for African Americans. 


3. Charlotta Bass


Bass led The California Eagle as publisher for almost forty years, through which she worked to diminish bias and discrimination against African Americans across the state in the media as well as in public policy. She was deeply involved in the movement for Civil Rights and established the National Sojourner for Truth and Justice Club to advocate for working-class Black women. Bass went on to run for vice president, the first Black woman to do so, as the Progressive Party’s nominee in 1952. Her slogan at the time was “Win or lose, we win by raising the issues,” a sentiment still widely held today. 


4. Shirley Chisholm


Chisholm also got her start in education, working as a consultant in New York City. After serving in the state legislature of New York, she broke barriers in 1969 as the first Black woman to gain a seat in Congress. Here, she represented Brooklyn residents until 1983 and fought to increase the quality of life of the low-income urban population. She also used this platform to vehemently express her disdain for the Vietnam War. During her time in the House she also ran a campaign for President in 1972, making her the first Black politician from a primary party to do so. 


5. Carol Moseley Braun


Just ten years after graduating from the University of Chicago Law School, Braun transitioned her focus from law to politics when she joined the Illinois House of Representatives. In 1992, she made history as the first Black woman to be elected to the Senate. A Democrat, she championed issues such as education and gun control. After the conclusion of her term, she fluctuated her work to diplomacy by serving as the ambassador to New Zealand. Although her presidential campaign in 2004 did not gain her the nomination, she has since shifted gears to start and lead the company Good Food Organics. She has also spoken up about the impact of dyslexia in shaping her identity. 

Photo by Harold Mendoza via Unsplash

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Written by Megan Pontin

Enthusiastic word-collector, avid pancake-consumer, and experienced hammock-lounger. Student at Cornell University.

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