In this grand and compelling new history of Reconstruction, Philip Dray shines a light on a little known group of men: the nation's first black members of Congress. Neglected by most historians, these individuals—some of whom were former slaves—played a critical role in pushing for much-needed reforms in the wake of a traumatic civil war, including equal rights, public education, and protection from Klan violence. Most important, their example laid the foundation for future black political leaders.
Drawing on archival documents, newspaper coverage, and congressional records, he shows that P.B.S. Pinchback (who started out as a riverboat gambler), Robert Smalls (who hijacked a Confederate steamer and delivered it to Union troops), and Robert Brown Elliot (who bested the former vice president of the Confederacy in a stormy debate on the House floor) were eloquent, creative, and often quite effective—they were simply overwhelmed by the forces of Southern reaction and Northern indifference. Covering the fraught period between the Emancipation Proclamation and Jim Crow, Dray reclaims the reputations of men who, though flawed, led a valiant struggle for social justice.