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Black History Month: Senate Chaplain Reflects on Rosa Parks and Being the First African-American in Role

Roll Call's series with lawmakers and Capitol Hill figures continues this week

Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, the first African-American to hold the post, is interviewed in the Capitol by Roll Call in January. (CQ Roll Call)
Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, the first African-American to hold the post, is interviewed in the Capitol by Roll Call in January. (CQ Roll Call)

For Senate Chaplain Barry C. Black, this month is an “important reminder.” Roll Call’s series of interviews with lawmakers and Capitol Hill figures continues with a step away from politics during a sit-down with this nonpartisan fixture of the Senate — the first African-American to hold the role. 

Watch more interviews and the video, “Black History and America’s Capitol,” which combines all these talks, at Black’s full discussion with Roll Call is below.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity. Roll Call: What does it mean to you to serve the whole Senate, the whole institution, as the first African-American chaplain? Your prayers, at least in the immediate vicinity, are going to a body that is historically more white. Even now, I believe we’re at a high water mark in terms of African-Americans in the Senate, [with three,] but it’s still a very low number. Is it a poignant reminder?

Barry C. Black: It really isn’t. I really rarely, when I awaken in the morning say: “You’re an African-American.” Even when I’m looking in the mirror and, you know, shaving and the whole nine yards. I think that my greatest identity is the fact that I believe that I am a child of God, as I believe the people for whom I minister are children of the most high God.

RC: What are some of the events in your time here, your tenure here, that stand out to you in terms of African-American history being made in this building, [the U.S. Capitol]?

Black: I had the privilege of offering the invocation when Rosa Parks was lying in honor in the Capitol Rotunda. Now 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, with President George W. Bush to my right, and I’m able to frame that moment with a prayer. Come on, I mean, I feel like Forrest Gump sometimes — in the right place, at the right time. There are always those Walter Mitty moments, where you’re saying — “Let me pinch myself, could this be true?” as the eyes of the nation are on that Rotunda and I am the one who’s given the privilege of offering this prayer. It’s brought to me, and I’m given that awesome privilege of being a part of African-American history. So it’s very, very special. 

RC: Ultimately, we’re in this strange interregnum of history it seems, where President Barack Obama — the first African-American president — he lifted off from the East Front of the Capitol into retirement just a few yards away from a commemorative marble that commemorates the workers, many of them slaves, who helped build the Capitol. Some people would say, why do we need a Black History Month to commemorate this, we’ve had a black president now. What would your feelings be about that?

Black: I would say that there is enough evidence of polarization regarding race in America that we still need to be reminded of the contribution of non-majority individuals. So I think that, even with an African American president, that we still need to gently remind one another that John Donne, the British poet, had it right. No one is an island, each person is a piece of the continent — a part of the main. Every person’s death diminishes us for we are involved with human kind, therefore send not to ask for whom the bell tolls, it tolls for us. And that when the ebony threads are missing from our history … or forgotten … or airbrushed, that we do not really know true American history. So I think maybe the day will come when that is no longer necessary, but I don’t think it has come yet.

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