The Randolph Society Foundation Board is pleased to announce its first honoree: John Willis Menard, a speaker, writer, and public servant who broke new ground for African-American representatives in American government.
John Willis Menard was born in 1838 in Kaskaskia to Creole parents. He may have been related to the Menard family of Kaskaskia, including Pierre Menard, a prominent Kaskaskia resident who served as the first lieutenant-governor of Illinois. John Willis Menard was educated in an abolitionist school in Sparta and later studied at Iberia College in Ohio.
Menard spent much of his career writing and speaking about abolitionist causes. His first prominent speech took place in Springfield in 1859. He wrote for, edited, and established numerous newspapers in Louisiana, Florida, and Washington, D.C. He was also a poet, composing verses in honor of various historical milestones and publishing a book of poems, Lays in Summer Lands, in 1879.
Menard was appointed to a clerkship in the Department of the Interior in 1863, making him the first African-American to serve in an administrative role in the federal government. He was deeply involved in the Lincoln administration’s exploration of possible colonial settlements for freed slaves, and he embarked on an investigative mission to Belize on the government’s behalf in the summer of 1863. He met his wife, Elizabeth, while traveling through Haiti and Jamaica. The Menards had three children: Alice, Willis, and Marie Jeanette.
In 1868, Menard became the first African-American to be elected to the United States Congress after winning a special election in Louisiana’s second congressional district. When the election was contested, he traveled to Washington, where he broke yet another color barrier, becoming the first African-American person to address the chamber of the House of Representatives. Even so, he was denied his seat, largely because of his race.
Menard held numerous other elected and appointed positions in state and federal government. He was the Superintendent of Schools in Duval County, Florida; a member of Florida’s state legislature; and a clerk at the census bureau in Washington, D.C.
Menard died in Washington in 1893 at the age of 55. Today, he is recognized not only for his landmark achievements as a pioneering elected official but also for his literary work.