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African Americans of the Senate

Photo of Senate Chaplain Barry Black

The role of African Americans in Senate history is not limited to those who served in elected office. In fact, one of the earliest and most enduring roles of African Americans in Senate history came with the construction of the U.S. Capitol. Although historians know little about the laborers who built the Capitol, evidence shows that much of that labor force was African American, both free and enslaved. Well known are key individuals who contributed to the design and construction of the federal city, such as Benjamin Banneker, the free African American mathematician who helped set the boundaries of the District of Columbia in 1791. Philip Reid, a slave, brought to the Capitol the mechanical expertise needed to place the Statue of Freedom atop the Capitol Dome in 1863.  

Among the first African Americans to be hired in professional clerical positions were Robert Ogle, a messenger for the Senate Appropriations Committee, and Jesse Nichols, who served as government documents clerk for the Senate Finance Committee from 1937 to 1971. Senate staff members Thomas Thornton and Christine McCreary and news correspondent Louis Lautier challenged the de facto segregation of Capitol Hill in the 1940s, '50s and '60s. In 1985, Trudi Morrison became the first woman and the first African American to serve as deputy sergeant at arms of the Senate. Alfonso E. Lenhardt, who served as sergeant at arms from 2001 to 2003, was the first African American to hold one of the top two administrative positions in the Senate. The Senate appointed Dr. Barry C. Black as Senate Chaplain on July 7, 2003, another first for African Americans in the Senate.

To date, nine African Americans have served as U.S. senators:

Hiram Revels: A Featured Biography

Photograph of Senator Hiram Revels

Hiram Revels of Mississippi became the first African American senator in 1870. Born in North Carolina in 1827, Revels attended Knox College in Illinois and later served as minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. He raised two black regiments during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi. The Mississippi state legislature sent him to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Senate during Reconstruction, and he quickly became an outspoken opponent of racial segregation. Although Revels' term in the Senate lasted just a year, he broke new ground for African Americans in Congress.

Blanche K. Bruce: A Featured Biography

Blanche Kelso Bruce by Simmie Lee Knox

Born into slavery in 1841, Blanche K. Bruce spent his childhood years in Virginia and Missouri where he received his earliest education from the tutor hired to teach his master's son. At the dawn of the Civil War, Bruce fled to freedom in Kansas.  After emancipation, he returned to Missouri and then Mississippi to pursue a career in education and politics. Elected to the Senate in 1874 by the Mississippi state legislature, he served from 1875 to 1881, becoming the first African American to preside over the Senate in 1879. In 2002, the Senate commissioned a new portrait of Bruce, now on display in the U.S. Capitol.  

Edward Brooke


The first African American elected to the Senate by popular vote, Edward Brooke of Massachusetts served two full terms, from 1967 to 1979. Born in Washington, D.C. in 1919, Brooke graduated from Howard University before serving in the United States Army during World War II.  After the war, he received a law degree from Boston University. During his Senate career he championed the causes of low-income housing and an increased minimum wage, and promoted commuter rail and mass transit systems. He also worked tirelessly to promote racial equality in the South.  (Photo: Senate Historical Office)

Carol Moseley Braun

Photo of Carol Moseley Braun

Some called 1992 the "Year of the Woman." More women than ever before were elected to political office in November of that year, and five of them came to the U.S. Senate.  Carol Moseley Braun of Illinois not only joined that class on January 3, 1993, but also became the first African American woman ever to serve as U.S. Senator.  During her Senate career, Moseley Braun sponsored progressive education bills and campaigned for gun control. Moseley Braun left the Senate in January of 1999, and soon after became the U.S. Ambassador to New Zealand, a position she held until 2001. Moseley Braun ran for the Democratic nomination for president in 2004. (Photo: Senate Historical Office)

Barack Obama

Senator Barack Obama of Illinois

Barack Obama was born in Hawaii on August 4th, 1961. He received his earliest education in Hawaii and Indonesia, and then graduated from Columbia University in 1983. He moved to Chicago in 1985 to work for a church-based group seeking to improve living conditions in poor neighborhoods. In 1991, Obama graduated from Harvard Law School where he was the first African American president of the Harvard Law Review. He served in the Illinois state senate from 1997 to 2004. Elected to the United States Senate in November of 2004, he took the oath of office and became the fifth African American to serve in the Senate on January 3, 2005. On November 4, 2008, Barack Obama was elected as the 44th President of the United States.

Roland W. Burris

Senator Roland Burris

Born in Centralia, Illinois, on August 3, 1937, Roland Burris earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in political science from Southern Illinois University Carbondale and a Juris Doctor degree from Howard University. After finishing law school in 1963, Burris became the first African American to work as a national bank examiner for the Treasury Department. When Burris was elected comptroller of Illinois in 1978, he was the first African American to win a statewide election in Illinois. After serving more than ten years as comptroller, he became attorney general of Illinois. Appointed to the Senate on December 31, 2008, Burris filled the vacancy caused by the resignation of Barack Obama.

Tim Scott

Tim Scott

Appointed to the Senate on January 2, 2013, Tim Scott became the first African American since Reconstruction to represent a Southern state in the Senate. Born in North Charleston, Charleston County, S.C., on September 19, 1965, Scott attended Presbyterian College in Clinton, S.C., before graduating with a Bachelor of Science degree from Charleston Southern University in Charleston, S.C., in 1988. An entrepreneur, Scott pursued a career in insurance and real estate. He served on the Charleston County, S.C. council from 1995 until 2008, and was a member of the South Carolina house of representatives from 2009 until 2010. Elected as a Republican Representative to the One Hundred Twelfth Congress, Scott served one term in the House of Representatives before being appointed to the United States Senate.

William "Mo" Cowan

The appointment of Massachusetts Senator William "Mo" Cowan on February 1, 2013 marked the first time that two African Americans have served simultaneously in the United States Senate. Born in Yadkinville, North Carolina, in 1969, Cowan earned a Bachelor of Arts degree in sociology from Duke University and a Juris Doctor degree from Northeastern University School of Law. After finishing law school in 1994, Cowan practiced civil litigation and became a partner in a law firm. Prior to entering the Senate, he served as chief legal counsel and chief of staff to Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick.

Cory A. Booker

Cory Booker (D-NJ) became the first African American to represent New Jersey in the United States Senate on October 31, 2013. Born in Washington, D.C., he earned a bachelor’s and master’s degrees from Stanford and then attended The Queen’s College, University of Oxford, Oxford, England, as a Rhodes Scholar, where he received a graduate degree in 1994. Booker then attended Yale Law School, earning his Juris Doctor degree in 1997. He served on the Newark City Council from 1998 to 2002 and then as mayor of Newark from 2006 to 2013. Booker was elected to the United States Senate in a special election on October 16, 2013, to fill the vacancy caused by the death of Frank Lautenberg, a seat subsequently held by appointed senator Jeffrey Chiesa, and took the oath of office on October 31, 2013, for the term ending January 3, 2015.

Jesse R. Nichols

Jesse Nichols

One of the first African Americans hired as a professional clerical staff member of the Senate, Jesse Nichols served as government documents clerk for the Senate Finance Committee from 1937 to 1971. Previously, black men and women had worked as messengers, grounds keepers, and in service positions, but had been excluded from the clerical staff. In the 1920s and 1930s African Americans such as Nichols began breaking through those barriers. When Nichols started work, most restaurants and other services on Capitol Hill were still segregated, and in his oral history interview he recounts the transition to integration.  (Photo: Senate Historical Office)

Christine S. McCreary


In her 45 years of service on Capitol Hill, Christine McCreary saw great changes in both the Senate and in Washington, D.C. She left Bethune-Cookman College to come to the capital as a secretary during World War II. While working in the Federal Security Administration typing pool, she was called to take dictation for the chairman of the National Security Board, Stuart Symington. Symington was impressed with her work and invited her to join his staff when he became director of the Reconstruction Finance Corporation and when he was elected to the Senate as a Missouri Democrat in 1952. Remaining with Senator Symington until his retirement, she then joined the staff of Ohio Senator John Glenn.  She recalls her experiences in her oral history interview.  (Photo: Senate Historical Office)