John Willis Menard
John Willis Menard.jpg
Born April 3, 1838
Kaskaskia, Randolph County
Died October 9, 1893 (aged 55)
New Orleans, Louisiana
Alma mater Ohio Central College, then Iberia College in Iberia, Ohio
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 a federal government employee, poet, newspaper publisher and politician born in Illinois to parents who were Louisiana Creoles from New Orleans. After moving to New Orleans, on November 3, 1868, Menard was the first black man ever elected to the United States House of Representatives. His opponent contested his election, and opposition to his election prevented him from being seated in Congress.
Life and career
John Willlis Menard was born in 1838 in Kaskaskia in Randolph County in southern Illinois, to parents who were free people of color. They were Louisiana Creoles from New Orleans, of mostly European and some African descent. 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, Menard 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. After the war Menard settled in New Orleans.
Menard moved to New Orleans in 1865, establishing the newspaper, The Free South, later named The Radical Standard. In an 1868 special election to fill the unexpired term of James Mann, a Democrat who had died in office, Menard was elected as a Republican 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. On February 27, 1869, Menard became the first African American to address the chamber.
When the House Committee on Elections failed to make a final determination on the election challenge, the case went before the entire House of Representatives. On February 27, 1869 it suspended its rules to allow both Menard and Hunt to address the chamber in support of their claims. Only Menard spoke. After Congress debated 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. Neither man was seated.
Menard moved to Jacksonville, Florida, where he was appointed to the Florida House of Representatives in 1874. He lost the next election, at a time when there was widespread intimidation of voters at elections and white Democratic efforts to suppress black voting. That same year and again in 1877, Menard was elected as a Duval County justice of the peace.
Menard 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.
Menard died in the District of Columbia and was buried at Graceland Cemetery in Washington, D.C. When Graceland closed in 1894, his remains were moved to nearby Woodlawn Cemetery. His daughter, Alice Menard, married Thomas Van Renssalaer Gibbs, the son of Jonathan Clarkson Gibbs.