Voters in urban congressional districts tend to be more diverse and politically progressive, driving the higher number of minorities in the House. But that has had little effect on the number of Black senators.
“Black US Senate candidates, and especially Black politically progressive Democratic candidates, have found it difficult to get traction and win statewide elections due to the default political conservatism in White majority regions of the US,” says Karlos Hill, chair of African-American studies at the University of Oklahoma.
From slavery and Jim Crow laws to suppression of minority voters, Black political candidates have long faced stumbling blocks. Hiram Revels, the first Black US senator, took office in the late 1800s as part of a wave of African American lawmakers during the Reconstruction era, but he was elected by the Mississippi legislature, not the state’s voters.
Shearer also cites the “incomplete legacy of the 15th Amendment,” which granted everyone the right to vote but was undermined by states in the deep South which disfranchised Black voters through literacy tests, property ownership requirements and other racist measures.
It wasn’t until 1965 that these discriminatory voting practices were outlawed by the federal Voting Rights Act.
“Black candidates can compete and win competitive statewide races if they are able to effectively mobilize the Black electorate,” Hill says. “If the momentum created by Abrams and Warnock’s recipe for mobilizing the Black electorate can be sustained, we could begin to see more Black representation in the US Senate. Only time will tell.”
Here are the 11 Black US senators:
Hiram Revels, Republican
Hiram Revels was a former barber and minister who served in the US Senate from 1870-1871.
Mississippi was seeking readmission to representation in the US Congress and needed to fill two Senate seats that had been unoccupied since 1861, when it seceded from the Union. Revels was offered the shorter of two terms — one set to expire in March 1871.
Blanche K. Bruce, Republican
Sen. Blanche K. Bruce of Mississippi was the first African American to serve a full term in the US Senate.
Like Revels, he was elected to the US senate by the Mississippi state legislature, not voters. Bruce served from 1875 to 1881.
Edward Brooke, Republican
The former World War II Army veteran graduated from Howard University and then attended law school at Boston University. He served two full terms in the Senate, from 1967 to 1979.
Carol Moseley Braun, Democrat
The Democrat from Illinois served only one term, from 1993 to 1999. Before joining the Senate, she was a prosecutor in the office of the United States Attorney in Chicago and assistant majority leader in the Illinois House of Representatives.
She defeated both the Democratic incumbent and the Republican challenger for a seat in the US Senate, becoming the first female senator from Illinois as well. But she lost her bid for reelection to the Senate and unsuccessfully ran for president in 2004.
In the nearly three decades since, there has only been one other female Black senator: Kamala Harris.
Barack Obama, Democrat
Barack Obama was the fifth Black US senator and only the third one elected by voters.
He took the oath of office in January 2005 after serving in the Illinois state senate for almost eight years. Obama served one term in the Senate before running for President in 2008.
A former community organizer in Chicago and the first Black president of the Harvard Law Review, Obama made history again as the first Black President of the United States. He became the 44th President and served two terms.
Roland Burris, Democrat
Before taking on that role, Burris was the first African American to win a statewide election when he was elected comptroller of Illinois in 1978. After serving as comptroller for over a decade, he became attorney general of Illinois.
He served in the Senate until November 2010, when voters chose his successor in a special election. Citing fundraising difficulties, Burris chose to retire instead of running for a full term.
Tim Scott, Republican
He was appointed US senator in January 2013 after the resignation of his predecessor, then was elected to a full term in 2016.
The lifelong resident of South Carolina has marveled at his family’s remarkable journey, considering his grandfather once dropped out of school to pick cotton.
William Cowan, Democrat
William Cowan was appointed to fill John Kerry’s seat after Kerry resigned in 2013 to become secretary of state.
Cowan spent less than six months in the Senate and chose not to run in a special election to decide who would serve the remainder of Kerry’s term.
Democrat Edward J. Markey won that race and has since been re-elected twice.
Cory Booker, Democrat
He was the popular mayor of Newark, the state’s largest city, before he joined the Senate after a special election in October 2013 following the death of Frank Lautenberg. The next year he was elected to a full term.
The former Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law School graduate unsuccessfully ran for President in 2020 but was later reelected to the Senate.
Kamala Harris, Democrat
She was the first Black person and first woman elected district attorney of San Francisco and attorney general of California, a position she held until 2016.
And she’s still shattering glass ceilings. This month, she was sworn in as Vice President of the United States — the first woman, first Black woman and first Asian American to hold that post.
Many advocates had called for a Black woman to replace her, but California Gov. Gavin Newsom instead appointed Alex Padilla, California’s first Latino senator. While historic, it leaves no Black women in the upper chamber of the US Congress.
Raphael Warnock, Democrat
Rev. Raphael Warnock’s win in a Georgia runoff election earlier this month played a big role in highlighting the growing power of Black voters in the South.
Like Revels, his path to the US Senate followed a key role in a pulpit of the Black church. Warnock is a senior pastor at Atlanta’s Ebenezer Baptist Church, where Martin Luther King served as co-pastor. Black voters in Atlanta and its suburbs turned out in big numbers to help him win.
In his victory speech, Warnock reflected on his mother’s teenage days picking cotton to in rural Georgia. He acknowledged how far the nation has come.
“Because this is America, the 82-year-old hands that used to pick somebody else’s cotton went to the polls and picked her youngest son to be a United States senator,” he said.
Along with Booker and Scott, he is one of three African Americans in the current Senate.