Surprising may not be the best word to describe this American history fact verified by The Washington Post, but it certainly is shockingly telling about this country’s past (and present).
According to a database compiled by the publication, more than 1,700 members of Congress enslaved Black people at some point in history. Throughout the 18th, 19th and even 20th centuries, people elected to represent states and shape federal law were actively participating in the institution of slavery.
The news organization used census data and historical records to compile the massive list of the Congressmen who represented 37 states not just in the South –– but some Midwest, New England, and Western states, too.
In the first 18 years of Congress’ existence, between 1789 and 1807, more than half of the men elected to Congress enslaved Black people.
Some lawmakers, like Sen. Edward Lloyd V of Maryland, owned and operated massive plantations. Records show that Lloyd enslaved some 468 people in 1832. Some, like Sen. Elias Kent Kane, who enslaved five people in Illinois, attempted to inform policy to continue slavery and even get it legalized in his home state.
Records show that people who had once owned slaves continued to serve in Congress into the 20th century well after the Civil War and Reconstruction.
So why does this matter?
The significance of the database further underlines slavery’s influence on American politics and makes clearer why its legacy is still seen and felt generations later.
The very people making the laws and shaping the political landscape of a young America were financially benefitting from the system designed on the exploitation Black people, our labor, ideas, and livelihood. When that system was abolished, the loss of those monetary benefits –– and the threat of formerly enslaved Black people’s political power and newfound freedom –– led to an evolution of the system.
It’s how we got the convict leasing program after the Civil War, how Jim Crow laws thrived, how redlining systematically devalued our communities, and how mass incarceration disproportionately impacts us today.
“I’m very conscious of this as only the fourth Black person popularly elected to the United States Senate,” Cory Booker told The Post, referencing the portraits hanging in the hallways of the Capitol and the votes that were once taken in the same building.
“The very monuments you walk past: There’s very little acknowledgment of the degree that slavery, that wretched institution, shaped the Capitol,” he said. “All around you, the very Capitol itself, was shaped by this legacy that we don’t fully know or don’t fully acknowledge.”
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