Sweet ocean goddess, divinely fair and free, outstretching far into the summer sea,
As if to catch the constant ocean breeze
That swiftly speeds over the gulf and seas!
~ John Willis Menard, Florida
John Willis Menard was a prolific writer, poet and the first Black man elected to Congress, however he was not seated. He was born in in 1838 in Illinois, not far from Abraham Lincoln. He was descended from Creole ancestry. His grandfather was a Frenchman who served at Lieutenant Governor of Illinois. Menard is common name for towns in Illinois and Texas.
Menard attended Iberia College in Ohio but did not finish. However, Menard was enormously successful.
He was the first Black clerk in the Department of Interior in Washington, D.C.
He authored an address called “To the Free Colored People of Illinois,” around the same time as the Lincoln- Douglas debate.
As an employee of the Department of Interior, Menard was sent to Belize to report on the conditions of the island. Menard believed, at one point, that Black people should be allowed to relocate to another country and his assignment was to determine the suitability of Belize. Menard did write a report on Belize, but ultimately the project went nowhere.
In 1865, he moved to New Orleans. It was just after the Civil War and the Reconstruction was beginning. For the first time, there were opportunities for African-Americans to (in theory) hold office. In New Orleans, Menard got a job as “Inspector of Customs.” It was also around this time that he published his first newspaper called “Free South,” which was later changed to “Radical Standard.”
When a seat in Congress opened in a special election for the 2nd Congressional district, Menard ran. However, Congress decided they weren’t quite ready for a Black member yet and so Menard wasn’t seated. He gave a spirited and fiery speech about the election before Congress. Soon after the injustice of the election, Menard moved to Florida. Once in Florida, it didn’t take long before he was elected to the Florida Legislature for a short time. Around this time in the late 1870s, he also began writing his poetry.
For most of his life, Menard had been an ardent supporter of the Republican Party (Abraham Lincoln’s party), however, he soon became disillusioned with the Republican party because they did not value African-Americans and were too willing to appease the Democrats, who campaigned on racism.
Ironically, because of Menard’s criticism of the Republican party, he caught the eye of George Drew, the newly-elected Democratic Governor in Florida. Drew appointed Menard as Justice of the Peace.
While in Florida, Menard also began writing a newspaper called the Southern Leader, which was successful. However, when yellow fever broke out in Florida, he moved away for a time. When he came back, he couldn’t revive his paper.
In 1889, Menard moved to D.C. and got a position in the Census office. He married a woman from Jamaica and had two children. He died on October 8, 1893. Throughout his life, Menard was very outspoken about the need for educational opportunities for African-Americans. He believed education was the defining factor for equality.
Menard lived through the era of slavery to see the rise of African-Americans during the Reconstruction and then he saw the Black Nadir. Despite his brilliance as a writer and speaker, even he faced discrimination and injustice.
“How long, O God! how long must I remain
Worse than an alien in my native land?” ~ John Willis Menard, The Negro’s Lament