For some 200+ years, from 1776 until 1992, the state of Georgia had one Black representative in Congress. And that one was only there for a term of less than three months. But Jefferson Franklin Long didn’t fail to make his mark during his short time. He is credited with being the first Black representative to make a speech on the House floor.
The occasion, in 1871, was a proposed bill to grant amnesty to former Confederates. Long was not a supporter. Here’s what he had to say:
“Do we, then, really propose here today, when the country is not ready for it, when those disloyal people still hate this government, when loyal men dare not carry the ‘stars and stripes’ through our streets, for if they do they will be turned out of employment, to relieve from political disability the very men who have committed these Kuklux outrages? I think that I am doing my duty to my constituents and my duty to my country when I vote against any such proposition… Mr. Speaker, I propose, as a man raised as a slave, my mother a slave before me, and my ancestry slaves as far back as I can trace them… If this House removes the disabilities of disloyal men by modifying the test-oath, I venture to prophesy you will again have trouble from the very same men who gave you trouble before.”
Long was born in 1836 to a slave mother in Knoxville, Ga. He was the property of a tailor named James C. Lloyd, who was likely his biological father. Although it was illegal at the time, he taught himself to read and write. Lloyd moved to Macon where he sold Long to Edwin Saulsbury, a local businessman. Saulsbury set Long up in a tailor shop in Macon. The historical records aren’t clear as to whether Saulsbury freed Long before emancipation in 1865, but as a free man, Long operated a successful tailor business. Most of his customers were white as they were the only people who could afford custom-made clothes.
Long’s interactions with his customers led him into politics. He had been active promoting literacy for African-Americans through an organization called the Georgia Educational Association. He was a strong supporter of the Republican Party and actively campaigned to promote the party to Black Georgians.
Following the Civil War, Georgia was not immediately granted re-admission to the Union because the state legislature refused to ratify the 15th amendment establishing the right to vote irregardless of race. It was not until 1870, after ratifying that amendment and reinstating an elected group of black state legislators who had been expelled, that Georgia once again became part of the United States.
That set up an unusual election in which the state at the same time elected representatives to fill the term of the 44th Congress (1869-1871) as well as representatives for the full-term 45th Congress (1871-1873). The Republican Party offered up white candidates for the full-term positions and Black candidates for the short terms. Long was one of the latter.
Long won the election with 53% of the vote against Democrat Winburn J. Lawton. After some delay, he was seated in January 1871 for a term that was to expire in March.
The other most notable part of Long’s career was his involvement in what the white press called the “Macon riots” on election day in 1872. Voter suppression efforts were now in full swing across the South, something that would eventually close the polls to Black voters. Long organized a group of Black citizens to head to the voting location in mass where they were met by a group of newly deputized and armed whites. In the ensuing melee two Blacks and one white man were killed.
The Southern white spin on this event is expressed in the following story from the New York Herald on Oct. 3, 1872:
“A fight occurred at the polls in Macon today growing out of another attempt by the negroes to take forcible possession of the polls… Very early in the morning they massed at the City Hall and marched down to the polls… There they met a smaller crowd, principally whites, and commenced crowding upon them and forcing them away from the polls. A few bouts of fisticuffs occurred in the dense mass, and then a discharge of brickbats came from the negroes, followed by an order from their leader, Jeff Long, to fire upon the whites. In the course of a few seconds about fifty pistol shots were discharged from both sides by which one white man was killed and some five or six negroes wounded, two of whom have since died.”
The Boston Globe of Oct. 21, 1872, offers a different take. It quotes a local Greeley Club president as declaring that the riot was “the work of white men, and they had no provocation.” On Long’s involvement:
“Jeff Long, colored, ex-member of Congress from that district, made a speech on the same evening, in which he replied to the charge that he advised his people to arm themselves, and showed that, on the contrary he had urged them; to go to the polls without even a cane, because he really trusted to the good conduct of the whites. Long has been criticized on both sides – charged with provoking violence by the Democrats, and by his own people with so advising them as to leave them helpless.”
Long came out of this unscathed, but backing away from politics. His reputation among whites in Macon took a hit and that impacted his tailoring business so he branched out into dry cleaning and liquor sales. He remained a self-employed Macon resident until his death in 1901.
In an ariticle in the Winter 2011 Georgia Historical Quarterly, titled Incendiary Negro: The Life and Times of the Honorable Jefferson Franklin Long, the author, Ephraim Samuel Rosenbaum, summed up Long’s career as follows:
“Given the oppressive social and political conditions in which he was compelled to operate, Long’s accomplishments were remarkable. He was a slave-born tailor who rose to the top of his party and maintained the loyalty and admiration of the majority of its members over the course of nearly fifty turbulent years, this despite the fact that the party had effectively abandoned his race and state.”
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