November 3rd, 1868 – The Legacy of John Willis Menard
During the American Civil War, John Willis Menard worked as a clerk in the Department of the Interior under President Abraham Lincoln. In 1863, he was sent to British Honduras to investigate a proposed colony for newly freed slaves, and later after the war Menard settled in New Orleans. It was there 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 on November 3rd, 1868 to represent Louisiana’s 2nd congressional district.Menard, however, was denied the seat on the basis of an election challenge by the apparent loser, Caleb S. Hunt.
On February 27th, 1869, Menard did become the first African American to address the chamber. 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 27th, 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. 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.
Menard moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was appointed to the Florida House of Representatives in 1874 and lost the next election. That same year and again in 1877, he was elected as a Duval County justice of the peace.