Notable Firsts: Black American Leaders

How Many of These Black American Leaders Do You Know?

15 men and women who broke color barriers in the U.S. military and government 

Until 1870, the United States had never elected a Black member of Congress. Over the next 100 years, the country’s first Black senator, governor, and Supreme Court justice — among other top officials — took office. During Black History Month, we learn what inspired these American trailblazers.

First Black U.S. Senator:

Hiram Rhodes Revels

A former pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and Mississippi state senator, Revels was elected by the Mississippi legislature on Jan. 20, 1870, to fill the seat previously held by slavery advocate Albert Brown.

In an 1871 speech on the Senate floor, Revels said: “If the nation should [encourage] prejudice against the colored race, can they have any grounds upon which to predicate a hope that heaven will smile upon them and prosper them?”

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First Black female U.S. Senator:

Carol Moseley-Braun

When Illinois elected Moseley-Braun to the U.S. Senate in 1992, she became the first Black woman and the fourth Black person to serve as a U.S. senator.

“We have to get past racism,” Moseley-Braun said, addressing her fellow lawmakers in a floor speech in 1993, “we have to get past racism, we have to get past sexism, [we have to get past] the many issues that divide us … and come together as Americans so we can make this country be what it can be in the 21st century.”

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First Black Member of the U.S House of Representatives:

Joseph Hayne Rainey 

In October 1870, Rainey was elected to represent South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives.

“I can only raise my voice,” Rainey said from the House floor in 1877, “and I would do it if it were the last time I ever did it, in defense of my rights and in the interests of my oppressed people.”

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First Black Female Member of the U.S. House of Representatives:

Shirley Chisholm

Chisholm, a former schoolteacher, was elected to represent Brooklyn, New York, in the U.S. House of Representatives in 1968 and served until 1983.

Speaking in 2004 about her legacy as a pioneer for both Blacks and women, Chisholm said: “I want history to remember me not just as the first Black woman to be elected to Congress … but as a Black woman who lived in the 20th century and dared to be herself. I want to be remembered as a catalyst for change in America.”

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First Black Justice on the Supreme Court:

Thurgood Marshall

President Lyndon B. Johnson appointed Marshall, a civil rights lawyer, as a Supreme Court justice in 1967.

Upon receiving the Liberty Medal in 1992, Marshall said: “We must dissent from the apathy. We must dissent from the fear, the hatred, and the mistrust.... We must dissent because America can do better, because America has no choice but to do better.”

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First Black Cabinet Secretary:

Robert C. Weaver

On Jan. 18, 1966, Weaver was sworn in as President Lyndon B. Johnson’s secretary of housing and urban development.

“Every American has the right to be treated as a human being,” said Weaver, speaking in New York City in 1963, “and striving for human dignity is a national characteristic.”

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First Black State Governor:

Pickney Benton Stewart Pinchback

A former captain in the Union Army, Pinchback was elected to the Louisiana state Senate in 1868. He stepped in as lieutenant governor in 1871 after the death of the sitting lieutenant governor and went on to assume the role of governor when the sitting governor was impeached in 1872.

At the Cincinnati Convention of Colored Newspaper Men in 1875, Pinchback said, “I am groping about through this American forest of prejudice and proscription, determined to find some form of civilization where all men will be accepted for what they are worth.”

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First Black Judge on a U.S. District Court and U.S. Appeals Court:

William H. Hastie

A Harvard Law graduate and Tennessee native, Hastie was appointed by President Franklin D. Roosevelt to the U.S. District Court for the U.S. Virgin Islands, serving from 1937 to 1939. In 1949, President Harry S. Truman appointed Hastie to the federal judiciary again, this time as a judge on the U.S. Court of Appeals for the Third Circuit, located in Philadelphia.

In an essay published in 1969, Hastie wrote, “Only those who are convinced of the organic soundness of the nation and its will to improve can reform it.”

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First Black Female Judge on a U.S. District Court: 

Constance Baker Motley

A civil rights lawyer and associate of Thurgood Marshall, Motley was appointed by President Lyndon B. Johnson in 1966 as a federal judge on the U.S. District Court for the Southern District of New York.

“The ideological revolution may have been begun by White colonists and framers of the Constitution,” said Motley to members of a Black history organization in 1975, “but that revolution has been carried forward by the idealism of both Black and White civil libertarians throughout our history, and it must still be pressed forward.”

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First Black General in the U.S. Army:

Benjamin O. Davis Sr.

On Oct. 25, 1940, President Franklin D. Roosevelt promoted then-Colonel Davis to the rank of brigadier general in the U.S. Army.

Speaking at a civic luncheon in Buffalo, New York, in 1944, Davis said, “If we would take a little time out and try to learn something of the background and development of our next-door neighbor, we would get along a little better.”

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First Black Female General in the U.S. Army:

Hazel Johnson-Brown

In 1979, Johnson-Brown was promoted to brigadier general when President Jimmy Carter named her chief of the U.S. Army Nurse Corps.

“Positive progress toward excellence, that’s what we want,” Johnson-Brown told Ebony magazine in 1980. “If you stand still and settle for the status quo, that’s exactly what you will have.”

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First Black U.S. Ambassador:

Edward R. Dudley

President Harry S. Truman named Dudley U.S. ambassador to Liberia in 1949, and he served in this role until 1953.

Dudley told a reporter in 1954 that the time overseas made him “even more aware of the urgent need to eliminate all aspects of racial discrimination and segregation” in the United States. “We must move speedily to make democracy a living reality for every American.”

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First Black Female U.S. Ambassador and Cabinet Secretary:

Patricia Harris

Harris captured two firsts: in 1965, President Lyndon B. Johnson nominated her to be U.S. ambassador to Luxembourg, and in 1976, President Jimmy Carter tapped her to serve as secretary of housing and urban development.

In her confirmation hearing before the Senate in 1977, Harris said, “I have been a defender of women, of minorities … and if my life has any meaning at all it is that those who start as outcasts may end up being part of the system.”

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First Black President:

Barack Obama

Obama, a lawyer and senator from Illinois, was elected president of the United States in 2008. He served two terms.

Speaking at the Constitution Center in Philadelphia just months before the 2008 general election, he said, “I believe deeply that we cannot solve the challenges of our time unless we solve them together — unless we perfect our union by understanding that we may have different stories, but we hold common hopes … we all want to move in the same direction — towards a better future for [our] children and our grandchildren.”

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First Black (and South Asian) Vice President:

Kamala Harris

Harris, who is of mixed Jamaican and Indian heritage, was elected vice president of the United States in 2020. She accomplished a triple first: the first Black American, the first South Asian American, and the first woman to be elected vice president.

In her first public address as vice president, Harris remarked: “In many ways, this moment embodies our character as a nation. It demonstrates who we are. Even in dark times — [Americans] not only dream. We do. We not only see what has been, we see what can be.... We are bold, fearless, and ambitious. We are undaunted in our belief that we shall overcome, that we will rise up. This is American aspiration.”

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