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.
In 1868 Senate employee Kate Brown sued a railroad company that forcibly removed her from a train because of her race. That case eventually made it to the Supreme Court, which ruled in Brown’s favor in 1873.
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.
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)
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)