John Willis Menard

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John Willis Menard
John Willis Menard.jpg
Born (1838-04-03)April 3, 1838
Kaskaskia, Randolph County
Illinois, USA
Died October 9, 1893(1893-10-09) (aged 55)
Washington, D.C.

New Orleans, Louisiana

Jacksonville, Florida
Alma mater Ohio Central College, then Iberia College in Iberia, Ohio
Political party


First African American ever elected to the United States House of Representatives but denied his seat from Louisiana's 2nd congressional district
Children Alice Menard

John Willis Menard (April 3, 1838 – October 8, 1893) was an African American federal government employee, poet, and newspaper publisher who, on November 3, 1868, was the first black man ever elected to the United States House of Representatives.[1] Racist outcry against his election prevented him from being seated.

Life and career[edit]

Menard was born in Kaskaskia in Randolph County in southern Illinois, to parents of Louisiana Creole descent from New Orleans who were free people of color. He may have been related to Michel Branamour Menard, a French-Canadian fur trader and a founder of Galveston, Texas. Menard attended school in Sparta, Illinois and Ohio Central College, then Iberia College in Iberia, Ohio.

During the American Civil War, he worked as a clerk in the Department of the Interior under President Abraham Lincoln. He was sent to British Honduras in 1863 to investigate a proposed colony for newly freed slaves.[2] After the war Menard settled in New Orleans.

In an 1868 special election to fill the unexpired term of James Mann, a Democrat who had died in office, Menard, a Republican, was elected to represent Louisiana's 2nd congressional district. He was denied the seat on the basis of an election challenge by the apparent loser, Caleb S. Hunt.[3] On February 27, 1869, Menard did become the first African American to address the chamber.[4][5]

When the House Committee on Elections could not make a final determination on the election challenge, the case went before the entire House of Representatives who, on February 27, 1869 suspended its rules to allow both Menard and Hunt to address the chamber. Only Menard spoke. After debating the issue, neither Menard nor Hunt could gain enough support to be seated. The vote for Hunt was 41 in favor to 137 against. For Menard, it was 57 in favor and 130 against.[6] Congressman and future president James A. Garfield is reputed to have said that “'it was too early' for an African American to be admitted to Congress.[7]

Menard moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was appointed to the Florida House of Representatives in 1874 and lost the next election.[8] That same year and again in 1877, he was elected as a Duval County justice of the peace.

He was a poet, the author of Lays in Summer Lands (1879). Menard was also the editor of the Florida News and the Southern Leader from 1882 to 1888.[8]

Menard died in the District of Columbia and was buried at Graceland Cemetery in Washington, D.C.[9] When Graceland closed in 1894, his remains were moved to nearby Woodlawn Cemetery.[9] His daughter, Alice Menard, married Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs, the son of Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs.


  1. ^ Stone, Spessard. "John Willis Menard", Roots Web. 2 November 2012.
  2. ^ Phillip W. Magness and Sebastian N. Page, Colonization after Emancipation: Lincoln and the Movement for Black Resettlement, [1] p. 43
  3. ^ "John Willis Menard", French Creoles of America. 2 November 2012.
  4. ^ Menard, John Willis. "Speech Before the United States House of Representatives", News in 2 November 2012.
  5. ^ "John Willis Menard of Louisiana became the first African American to address the U.S. House", Office of the Clerk, U.S. House of Representatives. 2 November 2012.
  6. ^ Lauren Borchard. "John Willis Menard: His Congressional Claim to Fame", U.S. Capitol Historical Society. 3 November 2012.
  7. ^ tonyp. "A Contested Claim: First African American Elected to Congress?", Roots Web. 2 November 2012.
  8. ^ a b "Menard, John Willis (1838-1893)", Black Past,org. 2 November 2012.
  9. ^ a b Brown, DeNeen L. (March 6, 2011). "A D.C. Cemetery's Dead Come to Life Again On Stage". The Washington Post. Retrieved August 29, 2014.