Black History Month this year has taken on an added resonance, reflected in the record number of African-Americans in Congress.
In the Senate, it has been a long buildup to the current high-water mark of three members: Republican Tim Scott of South Carolina and Democrats Cory Booker of New Jersey and Kamala Harris of California.
In the House, Democrat John Conyers Jr. of Michigan is the dean of that chamber as well as its slate of 49 black lawmakers — 47 Democrats and two Republicans. Conyers has a link to one of the civil rights movement’s icons, having employed Rosa Parks as a staffer from 1965 to 1988. Parks now occupies a place of honor in the Capitol’s Statuary Hall.
This year also comes with special significance because of the conclusion of the presidency of the first African-American commander in chief, Barack Obama, who left office on Jan. 20.
Rep. Cedric L. Richmond, the Louisiana Democrat who chairs the Congressional Black Caucus, said that was the reason he went to the inauguration of Donald Trump — to see Obama off. “I was there strictly to say goodbye to the old guy and to thank the president for eight years of hard work, of grace, of class, and not embarrassing the country, and increasing our standing around the world. And to see him, not far from Emancipation Hall, get in what would be Marine One and fly off, was very important and it was an emotional moment because it reminds you that we can achieve anything,” Richmond said.
Watch Roll Call’s video Black History and America’s Capitol
It was a bittersweet moment, explained Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, a Maryland Democrat and former CBC head.
“I was sad, and I think I would not have felt that sad if Trump wasn’t replacing him. I thought about all that he had done. I thought about all the fights he had fought. I thought about how the Republicans resisted him at every turn, and that he was still able to achieve a lot,” Cummings told Roll Call.
Even with those fights, Obama’s place in history is one that crosses the partisan divide. Scott described an emotional moment he shared with his grandfather on Election Day 2008.
“He just could not believe that there was a chance that this country, his country, would elect a black man to be president,” the senator told Roll Call, adding that his grandfather had tears in his eyes as they drove to the polls. “It was only the second time I’d seen him cry. In 2001, when his wife died, and in 2008, to go vote for President Obama.”
One of the cruel ironies of history is that slaves helped build the Capitol, one of the world’s most recognizable symbols of freedom. Their efforts are marked in Emancipation Hall by a block of Aquia Creek sandstone, a poignant symbol of how entwined U.S. history and black history is.
The Capitol now honors several black heroes, from the statues of Frederick Douglass and Sojourner Truth in the Capitol Visitor Center, to the bust of Martin Luther King Jr. in the Rotunda to Parks, seated as she was in desegregating Montgomery’s buses, in Statuary Hall.
Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, the first African-American to hold that position, recalled a highlight of his tenure when he offered the prayer for Parks when she lay in honor in the Rotunda after her 2005 death.
“Imagine this. I was in Alabama in the 60s when segregation was legal and to fast-forward and years later, I’m standing in the Capitol Rotunda, and I’m able to frame that moment with a prayer,” Black said.
Black history and culture have also extended far into America’s most boundary-traversing industry: Hollywood. A record six African-Americans were nominated for Academy Awards in acting categories in 2017, and nominations for best picture went to black-themed films like “Fences,” “Hidden Figures” and “Moonlight.”
In addition, four of the five films nominated for best documentary film were directed by blacks. One of those directors, Raoul Peck, came to Washington last week to screen his film “I Am Not Your Negro,” about the late James Baldwin, a prominent black writer.
The Feb. 1 screening at the National Museum of African American History and Culture was so oversold that hundreds of people were turned away at the door.
Baldwin was among the writers who argued that U.S. history is black history.
“The story of the Negro in America is the story of America. It is not a pretty story,” he wrote, as narrated in the film by actor Samuel L. Jackson.
That sentiment is echoed, partially, by the caretaker of the largest library in the world. Librarian of Congress Carla Hayden, the first African-American to hold the position, described black history as key to the nation’s understanding of itself, though not quite in Baldwin’s bleak terms.
“African-American history is American history. The fact that African-Americans were brought to this country to build this country is reflected in so many of the documents, photographs, everything that the Library has collected over time.”
That history is reflected, in all of its glory and complications, every day in the U.S. Capitol and with the public servants who make it work.