Collecting African-American political figures has been one of my passions since I began collecting about 50 years ago. The scarcity of African-Americans elected to public office in America is almost criminal. Since post Civil War Reconstruction, fewer than 130 have been elected to Congress, and only five to the Senate. For collectors, this means a focused genre of autographs. A signature from any of the early African-American congressmen sell for several hundred dollars.
Hiram Revels and Blanche Bruce of Mississippi were two senators who served during Reconstruction. Revels was the first African-American to serve in the Senate and U.S. Congress, but his seat lasted only one year from 1870-71. Bruce was the first to serve a full term from 1875-1881. A former slave, Bruce returned to Mississippi after the war and became wealthy as a planter. After his time in the Senate, he became Register of the Treasury and the first African-American whose signature was depicted on currency.
The House of Representatives saw 21 Southern African-Americans serve during Reconstruction. Of them, Robert Smalls stands out from the rest and is considered a Civil War hero. Smalls stole the Confederate ship, The Planter, and ended the war as the first black captain of a U.S. vessel. Afterserving in Congress in the 1870s and ’80s, Smalls was U.S. Collector of Customs at Beaufort, S.C., from 1889-1911, an important public advocate for black voting and lived in the house of his former owner. Men such as Bruce and Smalls are more common autographs, but still expensive, as I have sold congressional letters for more than $500.
Post Reconstruction Congress
African-Americans lost their right to vote at the end of the 19th century. After the 1876 presidential election, Democrat Samuel Tilden won the popular vote, but Republican Rutherford Hayes was given the presidency by a congressional commission, with the understanding Reconstruction would end. The fate of African-Americans was left to the same people who had held them in slavery and within several decades, African-Americans lost the majority of their rights, were subjected to violence by groups like the KKK and laws were enacted that took away their rights to vote. For a period from 1900-1930, almost no African-Americans served in a major office.
The next elected officials were from the North, due to the “Great Migration” of millions of African-Americans to the North, searching for jobs and escaping racism and violence. Several migrations occurred between 1910-1970, with people going to the big Northern industrial cities, then smaller cities and states like California. Republican Oscar de Priest was the first African-American elected to Congress in the 20th century, serving from 1929-1935 . Another African-American Republican wasn’t elected until Ed Brooke from Massachusetts went to the Senate in 1967 for two terms. Brooke was well known, accomplished a great deal and is an excellent signer.
Nearly all African-Americans elected to Congress after Oscar de Priest were Democrats. One of the most animated was Adam Clayton Powell Jr., a charismatic preacher from Harlem who was elected to the House of Representatives in 1945 and served until 1971. Although he helped pass civil rights issues, Powell is better known as a rogue who gained power and lived as he pleased, using committee funds for personal use. His signature sells starting at $50.
Other well known African-Americans from Congress include Shirley Chisholm, the first African-American woman in Congress and the first African-American to run for president; John Conyers, who served 43 years and is chairman of the House Judiciary Committee; and Yvonne Burke, the second woman in Congress and the first to have a child while in office. Ron Dellums and Parren Mitchell brought strong progressive agendas; Barbara Jordan had articulate brilliance; Andy Young, later U.N. Ambassador, and John Lewis were both heroes of the civil rights movement; and men like Charlie Rangel, Kweisi Mfume, Bill Gray and others stand out.
A particularly desirable autograph belongs to Illinois Representative Ralph Metcalfe, who served from 1971-78. Metcalfe has the additional title of medal winner from the 1932 and 1936 Olympics and is a member of the United States Track and Field Hall of Fame. His signature starts at $50.
After Ed Brooke, an African-American senator wasn’t elected until 1993 with Illinois Senator Carol Mosley Braun, who’s also the first African-American woman in the Senate. Braun made a short-lived run as a Democratic candidate in the 2004 presidential election. In 2005, Illinois Senator Barack Obama became the fifth African-American senator, and three years later made history when he was elected the 44th president.
State and City
Contributing to the growing number of African-Americans in politics, there have been a total of five black governors. P.B.S. Pinchback served as governor of Louisiana for 35 days, but it was Douglas Wilder who was the first elected governor when he won the 1990 Virginia race. He briefly ran for president in 1992 and went on to be the first directly elected mayor of the former Confederate capitol of Richmond. Deval Patrick was elected Governor of Massachusetts in 2006, the only other elected governor. New York has David Paterson, who came to office after being elected lieutenant governor and succeeding Eliot Spitzer.
On the city level, African-Americans have had their greatest success since Richard G. Hatcher became mayor of Gary, Ind., in January 1968 and Carl Stokes, mayor of Cleveland, who’s considered the first black mayor of a major American city. Tom Bradley, a longtime Los Angeles cop, became the first black mayor of Los Angeles and barely lost a race for governor, creating the so-called “Bradley effect,” heard throughout the 2008 campaign. David Dinkens is the only African-American elected mayor of New York City, and cities like Atlanta and Detroit have had a history of African-American mayors, like Detroit’s Coleman Young. All have a great reputation as autograph signers and most remain at very reasonable prices.
Several individuals hold a special place in African-American political history who helped pave the way for those that followed. Thurgood Marshall, the brilliant lawyer for the NAACP in Brown v. Board of Education, was a great influence in government before becoming the first black Supreme Court justice. He commands one of the higher prices for modern blacks with a signature selling for $100 or more.
William Hastie and Robert Weaver both played important roles in the administrations of Roosevelt and Truman. Hastie was an advisor on racial affairs, the first black on the federal bench and a contender for the Supreme Court. Robert Weaver was an expert in housing affairs and a leader of the “Black Cabinet” from the 1940s. When the new Department of Housing and Urban Development was established, Weaver became the first secretary and the first African-American to serve in a Cabinet post. He was later followed by Patricia Roberts Harris, the first black woman in the Cabinet. Two other Cabinet officers, Colin Powell and Condoleezza Rice, hold a special place in African-American politics. More than anyone, Powell could have possibly been the first black president, and Rice was rumored as a possible vice presidential candidate. These individuals fall into a higher price range of autographs, with Marshall around $100 or more for a signature, and the others all start at $50, depending on the item. Almost all have been excellent signers, although while in office, several extensively used Autopens.
Besides elected or appointed officials, there are other important political leaders. Julian Bond, a longtime civil rights leader was elected to the Georgia Legislature in 1966, but was thrown out for his opposition to the Vietnam War, an act overturned by the Supreme Court. After more than 20 years in the Georgia Legislature, he is currently chairman of the NAACP. Jesse Jackson, a minister and Martin Luther King aide who ran for president, has held a strong and controversial place in U.S. history. Al Sharpton is also seen in a similar light. He ran for president in 2004 and was one of the most articulate candidates. Jackson has used a secretary to sign autographs at various times, and Sharpton is hard to obtain, although neither bring huge amounts of money.
At a time when our country has made a tremendous shift by electing the first African-American president, now is an excellent time to start collecting these pioneers. Many are still alive and sign easily, and a number of the deceased leaders are still at prices that make them affordable. It’s an important aspect of U.S. history and a way to learn of fascinating individuals.