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In his classic autobiography, Up from Slavery, Booker T. Washington remembers how during Reconstruction (c. 1865-1877), the turbulent period following the American Civil War, “two ideas were constantly agitating the minds of the colored people. . . the craze for Greek and Latin learning” and “a desire to hold office” (Washington). This desire of newly emancipated African Americans to learn the languages that had long been considered markers of intellectual and moral capacity in the American imagination is well documented (Malamud). But Washington’s comments here, and throughout the chapter from which this passage is extracted, link the learning of classical languages with the desire to take positions in public life. And while in Up from Slavery Washington paints both endeavors as foolhardy aspirations, contemporary black office holders believed that knowledge of the ancient Mediterranean world would help them advance both the civil rights and the economic and political standing of African Americans. In newspapers, pamphlets, and political speeches, black officeholders during Reconstruction utilized the prestige of the Classical tradition to push for legislation like the Enforcement Bills (or the “Ku Klux Klan Acts”) of 1870–71 and the Civil Rights Bill of 1874. And while they held up ancient Greece and Rome as paradigmatic civilizations, they also pushed for the inclusion of Carthage, Egypt, and ancient African civilizations, to combat the scientific racism that decreed black people eternally incapable of civilization.

This paper analyzes four speeches, delivered by African American Representatives  Robert B. Elliot (AL), and Joseph Raney, Richard Harvey Cain, and James T. Rapier (all SC), offered in support of this legislation. These speeches, delivered on the floor of the U.S. Congress, perhaps best illustrate black officeholders’ use of the Classical tradition to combat racism. Rainey and Elliot decry Ku Klux violence rampant in the South, citing classical exempla to bolster the fledgling Enforcement Act. Similarly, Rapier and Cain vehemently defend the Civil Rights Bill by citing classical exempla. For example, in a retort to the former vice-president of the Confederacy Alexander Hamilton Stevens’ objections to the Civil Rights Bill and his claim that “negroes have never produced anything” (Simpson), Cain controverts Stevens’ assertion by citing the classical exempla of Hannibal, Euclid, and Aesop, all of whom were from Africa. This paper treats these overlooked Congressional speeches as significant pieces of African American literature. We contend that these African American legislators invoked classical exempla as a key weapon in their rhetorical arsenal, as they fought for equal treatment under the law during Reconstruction. These legislators confronted the ways in which white Southern congressmen such as Stevens had used the Classical tradition to assert the racial inferiority of African Americans, who they claimed had no connection to ancient civilizations and lacked the ability to learn Greek and Latin. We also show how these early African American legislators reframed the classical tradition to be inclusive and even celebratory of African origins and African heritage. In so doing, they rewrote the Classical tradition to support their contemporary arguments for equality.