John Willis Menard is best known as an abolitionist, author, journalist, and politician. He was born in Kaskaskia, a town located in Randolph County in the southern portion of Illinois in 1838. His parents were of French Creole descent. Some sources state that he might have been related to a French-Canadian fur trader, Michel Branamour Menard.
He was born in Kaskaskia, a town located in Randolph County in the southern portion of Illinois in 1838. His parents were of French Creole descent. Some sources state that he might have been related to a French-Canadian fur trader, Michel Branamour Menard. Although he holds the notable distinction of being the first African American elected to a congressional seat in 1868, he was not able to take it due to a dispute that reached the court regarding the results of the election.
The Formative Years
Without clear roots to any location, Menard first attended school in Sparta, Illinois before progressing to Ohio Central College. He developed his abolitionist ideas early on in his political career, having attended the abolitionist school, Iberia College in Ohio, once he was finished with his studies at Ohio Central. In 1860 when he was only 22, he published An Address to the Free Colored People of Illinois, a discourse filled with his abolitionist views.
Shortly thereafter, he served as the first African-American clerk for the U.S. Department of the Interior in Washington, D.C., becoming active in the Republican Party. During that time, he was dispatched by President Abraham Lincoln in 1863 to consider British Honduras, now known as Belize, as a possible site for a colony for African Americans who had recently been freed from slavery.
After the war, Menard moved to New Orleans, Louisiana. Initially, he was appointed the inspector of customs for the city, eventually switching to the position of Commissioner of streets. During that time, he published a civil rights advocacy newspaper originally known as The Free South, which later became known as The Radical Standard.
Political Shenanigans and Intrigue
In 1868, a special election was held to find a replacement for James Mann, a democrat who had died during his term in office for the second congressional district of Louisiana. Menard won the election with the majority of votes, becoming the first African American to do so. Caleb S. Hunt, his unhappy opponent, challenged the election results. The House Committee of Elections could not come up with a resolution for the situation, so the case went to the House of Representatives, which temporarily suspended its rules to enable the two opponents to address the chamber. However, only Menard chose this opportunity to make his voice heard.
Menard drafted a 1400-word speech, which he used to address the chamber on February 27, 1869, earning the distinction of becoming the first African American to do so. In his brief speech before the United States House of Representatives, Menard brought up several points that were pertinent to the election as well as to the proceedings.
In his opening statement, he affirmed his aspiration for the case to be determined by its merits only, rather than on any extenuating circumstances such as race. He mentioned that Mr. Hunt did not comply with the laws of Congress, and therefore, he was not actually able to contest the results of the election. Menard also discussed the overwhelming support he received during the election, stating that he had gotten more than 64% of the vote.
Unfortunately, the Committee of Elections decided to rule against Menard, giving his opponent a victory of sorts. Nonetheless, Hunt did not receive the appointment either, because the committee found both candidates lacking in qualifications. Hunt and Menard received little support from the representatives, with more than fifty percent of the votes going against the candidate in each case. However, Menard did receive slightly more votes in favor than Hunt. Nonetheless, the seat was left vacant for the remainder of the 40th congressional term. Joseph Rainey, an African American, won the next election. Despite this fact, Menard received the full financial amount of the salary he would have received had he been appointed.
Three years later, in 1871, Menard moved to Jacksonville, Florida. In 1873, he was given an appointment to fill a vacant seat in the Florida House of Representatives. When the next election was held in 1874, he lost to his opponent. He was elected to the position of Duval County Justice of the Peace, an office he held for two full terms.
Writer of Civils Rights Poetry
In 1879, Menard published his collection of civil rights poems, calling it Lays in Summer Lands. In 1882, he and his son-in-law, Thomas V. Gibbs, founded Key West News and the Florida News, which later became known as the Southern Leader. Menard acted as editor for both newspapers until 1888. Both individuals talked against racial segregation and its development in southern states, particularly Florida. Their approach to the rights of African Americans was a non-violent one.
Menard relocated with his family once again, taking his wife and three children to Washington, D.C. He found employment in the census office as a clerk. He founded a magazine, the National American. He remained politically active during his time there. Eventually, he made a request for the allocation of land in the western part of the United States so that African Americans living in the South could move.
An Early Death
John Willis Menard died on October 8, 1893 in the District of Columbia at the age of 55. He is buried in Washington, D.C. at the Woodlawn Cemetery.