The Risen Phoenix charts the changing landscape of black politics and political culture in the postwar South by focusing on the careers of six black congressmen who served between the Civil War and the turn of the nineteenth century: John Mercer Langston of Virginia, James Thomas Rapier of Alabama, Robert Smalls of South Carolina, John Roy Lynch of Mississippi, Josiah Thomas Walls of Florida, and George Henry White of North Carolina. Drawing on a rich combination of traditional political history, gender and black history, and the history of U.S. foreign relations, the book argues that African American congressmen effectively served their constituents’ interests while also navigating their way through a tumultuous post–Civil War Southern political environment.

Black congressmen represented their constituents by advancing a policy agenda encompassing strong civil rights protections, economic modernization, and expanded access to education. Local developments such as antiblack aggression and violent electoral contests shaped the policies supported by newly elected black congressmen, including the tactical decision to support amnesty for ex-Confederates. Yet black congressmen ultimately embraced their role as national leaders and as spokesmen not only for their congressional districts and states but for all African Americans throughout the South. As these black leaders searched for effective ways to respond to white supremacy, disenfranchisement, segregation, and lynching, they challenged the barriers of prejudice, paving the way for future black struggles for equality in the twentieth century.