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Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. This blog features stories that reveal the depth and breadth of Senate history from the well-known and notorious to the unusual and whimsical. Presented to enlighten, amuse, and inform, Senate Stories explores the forces, events, and personalities that have shaped the modern Senate.

For more notable moments in Senate history, please visit our Historical Highlights collection.

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Senators Maurine Neuberger and Margaret Chase Smith, January 5, 1961 202003 9Two Women Take the Oath
March 9, 2020
A long-standing feature of the Senate’s traditional biennial oath-taking ceremony is the escorting of newly elected or reelected senators to the well of the Chamber. In January of 2019, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, a record-breaking 14 women senators took the oath of office. Eight of those women were escorted by another female senator. As the number of women in Congress grows, these symbolically important moments are becoming more commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1961, the sight of two women taking the oath together caused quite a stir!
Categories: Women

In celebration of Women’s History Month, this Senate Story highlights a historic day in 1961 when—for the first time in Senate history—two women took the oath of office on the same day. One of the Senate’s most enduring traditions is the biennial oath-taking ceremony. A long-standing feature of this ritual is the escorting of newly elected or reelected senators to the well of the Chamber. Marching down the center aisle in pairs, or occasionally in groups of three, current and former senators, traditionally from the same state as the newly elected or reelected senator, then stand by to witness this much-anticipated moment in every Senate career. In January of 2019, at the beginning of the 116th Congress, a record-breaking 14 women senators took the oath of office. Eight of those women were escorted by another female senator. As the number of women in Congress grows, these symbolically important moments are becoming more commonplace, but that wasn’t always the case. In fact, in 1961, the sight of two women taking the oath together caused quite a stir!The 1960 election had already set a milestone. For the first time, two women candidates faced off against each other for the same Senate seat. One candidate was the Republican senator from Maine, Margaret Chase Smith, whose courageous stand against McCarthyism had won her national acclaim and placed her on the list of America’s most admired women. First elected to the Senate in 1948, Smith was reelected in 1954, and in 1960 she was seeking a third term. Political observers predicted an easy win for Smith, but the Democrats had a plan for victory. Their carefully chosen candidate was state representative Lucia Cormier. The only way to beat Smith, the Democrats insisted, was with another woman.The Smith-Cormier contest quickly gained national attention. Despite the many accomplishments of both women, the press often reported the campaign in sexist terms. It was a contest of “widow vs. spinster,” declared the Los Angeles Times. We expect to see “a real fur-flying political cat fight,” predicted the Washington Post, between “a scrappy ex-school teacher” and “the snowy-maned, frosty-mannered Republican ‘queen bee.’” The campaign heated up even more in February of 1960 when Maine’s junior senator, Edmund Muskie, personally championed Cormier’s campaign. Muskie even went so far as to escort the Democratic candidate to the Senate Chamber. He introduced Cormier as “the next senator from Maine” and urged her to take a seat at one of the historic desks. This was a clear breach of Senate etiquette and something that Senator Smith did not forget.Margaret Chase Smith won the election (and another in 1966). There were no post-election hard feelings between Smith and Cormier, who had been friends and colleagues for years, but as Smith returned to Washington to take the oath for a third time, she was none too pleased with Ed Muskie.Less publicized but equally important, another woman made Senate history that year. On November 8, 1960, Democrat Maurine Neuberger was elected as the first (and to date, only) woman senator from the state of Oregon. A teacher, writer, photographer, and activist for consumer rights, Neuberger had served in the Oregon state legislature in the 1950s but came to Washington, D.C., when her husband, Richard, was elected to the U.S. Senate. They quickly became a high-profile Washington “power couple.” When Richard died in 1960, Maurine Neuberger ran for election to his seat, winning both a special election to fill out the remainder of his term and a general election to the full six-year term beginning in 1961. For the first time in Senate history, two women were elected to a full term in the same election and would take the oath of office on the same day. “The gap between the two parties, the distance between Portland, Maine, and Portland, Oregon, will be bridged” by two women, promised a reporter.As the opening day of the 87th Congress arrived in January of 1961, the press paid a good deal of attention to the two women senators. Margaret Chase Smith, who for much of her career had been the only female senator, welcomed the company of another woman. Smith was also an astute politician. She understood that the oath-taking ceremony provided a perfect opportunity for a display of female solidarity in the Senate. It also provided an opportunity for some political payback.On January 3, 1961, when Margaret Chase Smith entered the Chamber to take the oath of office, she ignored Senate tradition. In a rebuke of her Maine colleague, she walked into the Chamber arm in arm with Maurine Neuberger. The two women got a standing ovation, women in politics got a hefty boost, and Margaret Chase Smith got even with Edmund Muskie.
Studio photograph of Senator Hiram Revels. 202002 25The First African American Senator
February 25, 2020
One hundred and fifty years ago, on February 25, 1870, visitors in the packed Senate galleries burst into applause as Senator-elect Hiram Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, entered the Chamber to take his oath of office. Those present knew that they were witnessing an event of great historical significance. Revels was about to become the first African American to serve in the United States Congress.
Categories: African Americans

Welcome to Senate Stories, our new Senate history blog. In recognition of Black History Month, our first blog post celebrates the sesquicentennial of the swearing in of Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American senator. One hundred and fifty years ago, on February 25, 1870, visitors in the packed Senate galleries burst into applause as Senator-elect Hiram Revels, a Republican from Mississippi, entered the Chamber to take his oath of office. Those present knew that they were witnessing an event of great historical significance. Revels was about to become the first African American to serve in the United States Congress. Just 22 days earlier, on February 3, the Fifteenth Amendment to the Constitution was ratified, prohibiting states from disenfranchising voters “on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.” Revels was indeed “the Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood,” as his contemporary, the civil rights activist Wendell Phillips, dubbed him.Hiram Revels was born a free man in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 27, 1827, the son of a Baptist preacher. As a youth, he took lessons at a private school run by an African American woman and eventually traveled north to further his education. He attended seminaries in Indiana and Ohio, becoming a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845, and eventually studied theology at Knox College in Illinois. During the turbulent decade of the 1850s, Revels preached to free and enslaved men and women in various states while surreptitiously assisting fugitive slaves.When the Civil War began in 1861, Revels was serving as a pastor in Baltimore. Before long, he was forming regiments of African American soldiers in Maryland, serving as a Union army chaplain in Mississippi, and establishing schools for freed slaves in Missouri. He settled in Natchez, Mississippi, at war’s end, where he served as presiding elder of the Methodist Episcopal Church. In 1868 he gained his first elected position, as alderman for the town of Natchez. The next year he won election to the state senate, as one of 35 African Americans elected to the Mississippi state legislature that year.In 1870, as Mississippi sought readmission to representation in the U.S. Congress, the Republican Party firmly controlled both houses of Congress and also dominated the southern state legislatures. That, along with the pending ratification of the Fifteenth Amendment, set the stage for the election of Congress’s first African American members. One of the first orders of business for the new Mississippi state legislature when it convened on January 11, 1870, was to fill the vacancies in the United States Senate, which had remained empty since the 1861 withdrawal of Albert Brown and future Confederate president Jefferson Davis. Representing around one-quarter of the state legislative body, the black legislators insisted that one of the vacancies be filled by a black member of the Republican Party. “An opportunity of electing a Republican to the United States Senate, to fill an unexpired term occurred,” Revels later recalled, “and the colored members after consulting together on the subject, agreed to give their influence and votes for one of their own race for that position, as it would in their judgement be a weakening blow against color line prejudice.” Since Revels had impressed his colleagues with an impassioned prayer at the opening of the session, legislators agreed that the shorter of the two terms, set to expire in March 1871, would go to him.Mississippi gained readmission on February 23, 1870, and Senator Henry Wilson, one of the Senate’s strongest civil rights advocates, promptly presented Revels’s credentials to the Senate. Immediately, three senators issued a challenge. They charged that Revels had not been a U.S. citizen for the constitutionally required nine years. Citing the 1857 Dred Scott Supreme Court decision, they argued that Revels did not gain citizenship until at least 1866, with passage of that year’s civil rights act, and perhaps not until the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified in 1868. By this logic, Revels could claim that he had been a U.S. citizen for, at most, four years.Revels and his supporters dismissed the challenge. The Fourteenth Amendment had repealed the Dred Scott decision, they insisted, and they pointed out that long before 1866 Revels had voted in the state of Ohio. Certainly that qualified him as a citizen. “The time has passed for argument. Nothing more need be said …. For a long time it has been clear that colored persons must be senators,” Massachusetts senator Charles Sumner declared, bringing the debate to an end with a stirring speech. “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration, and now a great act attests to this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality.” By an overwhelming margin, the Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Revels. Escorted to the well by Senator Wilson, Revels took the oath of office on February 25, 1870.Three weeks later, the Senate galleries were again filled to capacity as Revels rose to deliver his maiden speech. Seeing himself as a representative of African American interests throughout the nation, Revels spoke against an amendment to the Georgia readmission bill that could be used to prevent blacks from holding state office. “Perhaps it were wiser for me, so inexperienced in the details of senatorial duties, to have remained a passive listener in the progress of this debate,” he began, acknowledging the Senate tradition of waiting a year or more to deliver a major address, “but when I remember that my term is short, and that the issues with which this bill is fraught are momentous in their present and future influence upon the well-being of my race, I would seem indifferent to the importance of the hour and recreant to the high trust imposed upon me if I hesitated to lend my voice on behalf of the loyal people of the South.”Revels made good use of his time in office, championing education for black Americans, speaking out against racial segregation, and fighting efforts to undermine the civil and political rights of African Americans. When his brief term ended on March 3, 1871, he returned to Mississippi, where he later became president of Alcorn College.During the Reconstruction Era, a total of 17 African Americans served in the United States Congress, 15 in the House of Representatives and two in the Senate. In 1874 the Mississippi legislature elected Blanche K. Bruce to a full Senate term. Bruce, who had escaped slavery at the outbreak of the Civil War, became the first African American to preside over the Senate in 1879. Another eight decades passed before Senator Edward Brooke of Massachusetts followed in Revels and Bruce’s historic footsteps to take office in 1967.The significance of the courageous and pioneering service of Revels, Bruce, and the other African American congressmen of the Reconstruction Era cannot be overstated. Although the struggle to fully achieve equality would continue for years to come, their remarkable accomplishments opened doors for others to follow.