Republican Party The African American Story

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Nineteenth century cartoon depicting “The Two Platforms”

The HistoryMakers

As the election draws nearer and hearings commence for the U.S. Supreme Court nominee, politics continue to dominate the headlines. With racism at the forefront of our nation’s pressing issues, tensions between the African American community and Republicans in particular, seem as high as ever, but the former “Party of Lincoln” used to be dominated by black support and participation; Frederick Douglass once called it the party of “freedom and progress.” Shifts in past decades, however, have led to substantially fewer African Americans identifying with Republican Party politics.

The Republican Party was formed in Wisconsin in 1854 by Northern opponents of the Kansas–Nebraska Act, which allowed for the potential expansion of slavery into the new western territories. Their position of abolishing slavery and/or halting its spread helped spark the Civil War, and the first Republican president Abraham Lincoln led the Union to a victory which freed the enslaved, subsequently creating a strong base of black Republicans. As the first party to allow black involvement, the first African Americans elected in government were all part of the Republican Party and for decades Republicans could comfortably rely on receiving most of the black vote (from those who weren’t deterred from casting ballots).

The first African American senator and representatives, all Republicans (left to right): Sen. Hiram Revels (MS), Rep. Benjamin S. Turner (AL), Rep. Robert DeLarge (SC), Rep. Josiah Walls (FL), Rep. Jefferson Long (GA), Rep. Joseph Rainey (SC), and Rep. Robert B. Elliott (SC)

Amy Tate Billingsley, The HistoryMakers’ southeast coordinator, recalled her great-grandfather Jessie Chisholm Duke, who was among the early African American participants in the Republican Party: “He was a teacher and a mail clerk and at one point was a delegate to the Republican National Convention in 1884… he was elected as an Alabama delegate… the convention was in Chicago.”[1] Newspaper editor Eunice Trotter similarly remembered: “My great-grandfather’s brother’s son [Gurley Brewer]… He was a lawyer… [and] a politician.[2] In 1896, “hundreds of Republicans squeezed into the old Opera House in Brazil, Indiana, to hear Gurley C. Brewer… campaign for Republican presidential candidate William McKinley… Brewer helped numerous GOP candidates… For nearly three decades, he was in demand statewide and nationally. Brewer could count on being greeted by crowds of hundreds, sometimes thousands, wherever he spoke in support of a Republican Party candidate or about the key issues of the day that affected African Americans.[3] Because of his involvement, Trotter said, he then became “a delegate to the national convention of the Republican Party in 1904.”[4]

Gurley C. Brewer and Guide to the 1884 Republican National Convention

Being a Republican had deep roots within the African American community, as noted by The Honorable Theodore Newman, Jr.: “I was raised as a Republican… My father [Theodore Roosevelt Newman] was a Republican in Macon County, Alabama who when asked why he wasn’t a democrat would pull down a… window shade on which he had copied the party symbol of the democratic party of the State of Alabama. It was a white rooster with its motto being white supremacy for the right, and daddy said if you believe in that you vote democrat.”[5] There was a shift, though, which began during the Great Depression and the administration of President Franklin D. Roosevelt: “After receiving only 23% of the black vote in the 1932 presidential election, Roosevelt’s candidacy was not a catalyst for African Americans to shift allegiances towards the Democratic Party… However, Roosevelt’s presidency would prove to have a monumental impact on African American perceptions of the Democratic Party due to his New Deal economic policies and outreach to the black community.”[6] Reverend Benjamin Hooks (1925 – 2010), former CEO of the NAACP, recalled his father’s reaction during this time: “Things went bad in 1929. He [Robert Hooks] changed his political philosophy; if you mentioned [Herbert] Hoover or the Republican Party he’d want to lynch you. You know he became a dedicated Franklin Roosevelt New Dealer in 1933, and remained a dedicated Democrat until the day of his death.”[7] Educator June Antoine (1929 – 2016) also recalled: “Our family had been Republican. And I think my father and mother… probably changed [to Democrats] about the third or fourth time [President Roosevelt was elected]… because they were pretty dyed in the wool Republicans. My aunt, in fact, in 1940… was an alternate for Governor [John W.] Bricker at the National Republican Convention… So that’s how deep into Republican politics that side of the family was.”[8] Walter C. Carrington (1930 – 2020), former U.S. ambassador to Senegal and Nigeria who died in August at the age of 90, pointed out too that “politics in my area [Boston, Massachusetts] really had a lot to do with religion. All the Catholic kids were Democrats and all the Protestant kids (laughter) were Republicans pretty much… the Irish and the Italians were all very strongly Democrat and the Protestants, and most blacks at the time [were Republican]… although they were beginning to change. Roosevelt was changing them.[9]

Logo of the Alabama Democratic Party until the 1960s

However, many African Americans remained Republicans despite their parents becoming Democrats. Gloria Toote (1931 – 2017), who served as an advisor to four American presidents, is an example of this and she contends it was not easy. She explained how, in 1954, “I finished Howard University School of Law. A number of my faculty professors were Republicans. I admired them… when I came home to New York… [the] Republican Party courted me… And, I said well now, first of all its gonna to be an old boys network to begin with, so it’s gonna be uphill battle… My mother’s [Lillie Tooks Toote] a Democrat, my father’s [Frederick Toote] a Democrat, all my family. But it’s not really where my mindset is. I knew that there were some within the Republican Party, as there are now, who wanted the involvement of blacks, and I thought it was a marvelous opportunity. I had no idea how constantly uphill a battle it would be to gain recognition or status within the party.”[10] Reverend Jerry A. Moore, Jr. (1918 – 2017) joined the Republican Party after seeing the lack of African Americans in the party, recalling that, in 1964, “The presidential candidates, Johnson [President Lyndon Baines Johnson]… [and] Rockefeller [Nelson Rockefeller]… were around trying to solicit votes. And, they’re trying to get colored people to join their party. All the black folks that I knew were running and jumping in the Democratic Party. I said, ‘Now, you can’t put too many crabs in a tub ’cause the tub a run over. I’m gonna looking around here and see where nobody’s going.’ And, I looked at the Republican Party and they had all these vacancies.”[11] That same year though, Judge William Cousins, Jr. (1927 – 2018) saw reason to leave the Republican Party, not join it: “although I continued for a while to be affiliated in name with the Republican party, when Barry Goldwater emerged as the primary contender for the presidency in 1964… I read what Barry had written and listened to what he’d said. And I was disturbed that the party was moving in Goldwater’s way. Now Goldwater was a conservative and I felt uncomfortable with him. But after him I can say there came others who… made me more uncomfortable than Goldwater ever did… he made me so uncomfortable until I publicly resigned from the Republican Party. I saw no future… for progress with Goldwater approach.”[12]

Protestors outside of the St. Francis Hotel during the presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, San Francisco, California, 1964

The transitional year of 1968 and the campaigns of Richard Nixon and Hubert Humphrey brought more split opinions within the African American community. While Humphrey, the former vice president of Lyndon B. Johnson, sought to continue the War on Poverty and further civil rights, civic leader Paul Jones (1928 – 2010) pointed out: “There are a number of high profile African Americans that were in support of [Richard] Nixon I remember in those days, Charles Hurst of Malcolm X [Community] College in Chicago… Hurst was then the president… [and] was instrumental in bringing Betty Shabazz… There the newspapers and the wire services picked up a picture of Sammy Davis, Jr… reaching around with hand around Nixon’s waist hugging him and welcoming him… You had people like James Brown that came in.”[13] Charles Evers (1922 -2020), the first African American mayor elected in Mississippi post-Reconstruction, remembered of Nixon: “I didn’t agree with some of things he did. But, he still was a friend of mine. And I was a friend of his. Anything he thought that the black [community]… needed, he’d call me and ask me… Nixon went to a lot of black communities now during his presidency a lot of people don’t know that…. they didn’t publish that.”[14]

Entrepreneur Edward Lewis described how Nixon appealed to many African American businessmen: “He did more as a Republican president to open up access to capital than anyone else…there was a desire to get young blacks in the business. And so he facilitated several programs out of government to set up minority economic investment vehicles for young blacks to get access to capital.”[15] Entrepreneur and investment chief executive Frank Greene, Jr. (1938 – 2009) added: “Richard Nixon… made a real push on… Black Capitalism… black companies around the country, really were able to start getting contracts, and start taking advantage of that… some of our early contracts, came through that, came through that program.”[16] On the other hand, though, Nixon was also trying to appeal to white Southern voters through the “Southern Strategy.” Nixon’s political strategist, Kevin Phillips, who popularized the Southern Strategy, explained the impact: “From now on, the Republicans are never going to get more than 10 to 20 percent of the Negro vote and they don’t need any more than that…but Republicans would be shortsighted if they weakened enforcement of the Voting Rights Act. The more Negros who register as Democrats in the South, the sooner the Negrophobe whites will quit the Democrats and become Republicans. That’s where the votes are.”[17] Because of this, Edward Lewis, who supported Nixon, also admitted that: “I’ve always been a proponent that blacks should be a part of the Republican Party, but Republicans make it so difficult because of their ideology to be a part of the party.”[18]

President Richard Nixon meeting with African American leaders, Washington D.C., c.1970

Despite this, some African American Republicans remained with their party, including Arthur Fletcher (1924 – 2005), who was appointed by President Gerald Ford as deputy of urban affairs: “I’ve never had a white person yet ask me if I was a Republican or a Democrat when they got ready to discriminate against me. They could care less… it’s not ideology. It’s the fact that they gonna be spending my money, and your money and I need to be inside to see what I can do direct, to direct as much of that money to African American communities as I can. It ain’t got nothing to do with ideology.”[19] Similarly, Renee J. Amoore, former vice chair of the Republican Party of Pennsylvania, contended: “the bottom line is I teach people that we need to have a seat at the table. I don’t care if you’re a Republican or Democrat, but having a seat at the table helps to change policy. You know, you can be appointed to boards, that’s what helps me look at health care issues. That means I can say to one of the president’s staff or somebody in the White House these are the issues that you really need to look at in my community. And so that’s why it is important for me to have a seat at the table to represent all of us, and if we’re not on both sides of the aisle that won’t happen.”[20] Republican U.S. Senator Edward Brooke (1919 – 2015), the first African American to be elected senator by popular vote, the first to be seated since Reconstruction, and the first to be re-elected, was of the same mind: “We ought not put all of our eggs in one basket… I think they should be in the Republican party, and if they’re dissatisfied with the Republican party, as I have been on many, many occasions, particularly on national Republican politics and issues, their stands on issues, stay in there and fight; try to get it changed. But you can’t do it from the outside.”[21] But, Brooke also added: “The Republican Party has failed to bring them [African Americans] into the party because the perception is that they’re exclusive and that they don’t want them into the party. And they haven’t done much about it. No Republican president in recent history that I can think of has actually tried hard to bring more blacks into the Republican Party and given them a reason to come into the party and making them feel comfortable.”[22] Judge Theodore Newman, Jr., a former Republican, importantly pointed out how during this time there were different wings within the party that are nonexistent today: “I was a left wing liberal Republican. Nelson [Aldrich] Rockefeller, Jacob [Koppel “Jack”] Javits, Senator [Charles] Mathias, Governor [Willard Mitt] Romney… [they are a] no longer existent breed. Ed Brooke [Edward William Brooke III], that wing of the Republican Party… is extinct as a dodo bird now.[23]

Arthur Fletcher, Renee J. Amoore, and Senator Edward Brooke

Still, in the late twentieth century and into the twenty-first, there have been significant appointments of African Americans by the Republican Party like William Coleman as U.S. Secretary of Transportation in 1975, Dr. Louis Sullivan as U.S. Secretary of Health and Human Services in 1989, General Colin Powell as U.S. Secretary of State and Rod Paige as U.S Secretary of Education in 2001, and Condoleezza Rice as U.S. Secretary of State in 2005.

Republican Gen. Colin Powell, the first African American Secretary of State, speaking at the 2020 Democratic National Convention

Now in 2020, amidst a worldwide pandemic, racial hostility and protests, ongoing police brutality against African Americans, and raging fires caused by climate change, we find ourselves in a Republican Party where “Make America Great” and falsehoods abound. Even General Colin Powell, a Republican, spoke at the 2020 Democratic National Convention. Of course, there are still those like U.S. Secretary of Housing and Urban Development Ben Carson, football legend Herschel Walker, and U.S. Senator Tim Scott (SC) who are part of President Donald Trump’s Republican Party. While no one knows where the 2020 presidential election will lead, the fact is that most African Americans largely do not identify with Republican politics; less than 8% voted Republican in the 2016 election.

African American voting results for President by party, 1936-2016
(Measured in percentage; Blue = Democrat, Red = Republican, Yellow = Independent)

[1]Amy Tate Billingsley (The HistoryMakers A2003.093), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 26, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 3, Amy Billingsley describes her family history.

[2]Eunice Trotter (The HistoryMakers A2013.117), interviewed by Larry Crowe, April 7, 2013, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 6, Eunice Trotter talks about her family’s involvement in journalism.

[3] Eunice Brewer-Trotter. “Gurley Brewer: orator, civic leader, and political strategist,” Traces of Indiana and Midwestern History, vol. 26, no. 4, 2014, accessed August 24, 2020.

[4]Eunice Trotter (The HistoryMakers A2013.117), session 1, tape 3, story 6.

[5]The Honorable Theodore Newman, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.239), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 24, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, The Honorable Theodore Newman, Jr. talks about his Republican affiliation and involvement in Republican politics.

[6]Timothy J. Hoffman. “The Civil Rights Realignment: How Race Dominates Presidential Elections,” Seton Hall University, vol. 17, no. 1, 2015, 2.

[7]Reverend Benjamin Hooks (The HistoryMakers A2003.168), interviewed by Larry Crowe, July 24, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 1, story 8, Benjamin Hooks reflects on life in the Depression.

[8]June Sallee Antoine (The HistoryMakers A2004.027), interviewed by Regennia Williams, March 18, 2004, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, June Sallee Antoine talks about her family’s views on President Franklin Delano Roosevelt and his Works Progress Administration.

[9]The Honorable Walter C. Carrington (The HistoryMakers A2007.069), interviewed by Larry Crowe, February 14, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 2, story 8, The Honorable Walter C. Carrington recalls his early interest in politics.

[10]Gloria Toote (The HistoryMakers A2006.150), interviewed by Shawn Wilson, December 4, 2006, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 7, story 4, Gloria Toote remembers joining the Republican Party.

[11]Reverend Jerry A. Moore, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2007.171), interviewed by Janet Sims-Wood, April 27, 2007, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 9, Jerry A. Moore, Jr. recalls his decision to join the Republican Party.

[12]The Honorable William Cousins, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.009), interviewed by Larry Crowe, January 16, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 5, story 3, William Cousins details why he left the Republican Party.

[13]Paul Jones (The HistoryMakers A2003.195), interviewed by Larry Crowe, June 24, 2005, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 2, tape 5, story 10, Paul Jones talks about high profile African Americans who supported Richard Nixon.

[14]Charles Evers (The HistoryMakers A2017.105), interviewed by Denise Gines, May 24, 2017, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 8, Charles Evers remembers President Richard Nixon.

[15]Edward Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2014.224), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, October 7, 2014, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 1, Edward Lewis talks about President Richard Nixon.

[16]Frank Greene, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2002.036), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, March 31, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 1, Frank Greene talks about President Richard Nixon’s support of “Black Capitalism”.

[17]Hoffman. “The Civil Rights Realignment,” 10-11.

[18]Edward Lewis (The HistoryMakers A2014.224), session 1, tape 4, story 1.

[19]Arthur Fletcher (The HistoryMakers A2003.111), interviewed by Julieanna L. Richardson, May 29, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 7, story 7, Arthur Fletcher explains how he helps the black community from within the Republican Party.

[20]Renee J. Amoore (The HistoryMakers A2002.179), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 10, 2002, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 3, story 2, Renee Amoore talks about the Amoore Group’s work in South Africa.

[21]The Honorable Edward Brooke (The HistoryMakers A2003.233), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 23, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 8, story 6, Edward Brooke discusses black voters and the two major political parties.

[22]Ibid.

[23] The Honorable Theodore Newman, Jr. (The HistoryMakers A2003.239), interviewed by Larry Crowe, September 24, 2003, The HistoryMakers Digital Archive. Session 1, tape 4, story 6, The Honorable Theodore Newman, Jr. talks about his Republican affiliation and involvement in Republican politics.

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