A writer, publisher, speaker, and public servant, John Willis Menard was a trailblazer from Randolph County who broke down barriers for African-Americans in numerous public institutions, including the United States Congress.
Menard was born in Kaskaskia in 1838 to parents whose names have not been recorded. Some sources say that his mother and father were from New Orleans, while others write that they were from Illinois. All note that they were free. Menard was of mixed-race heritage – his parents are often described as “Creoles” – and it’s possible that he was descended from the French-Canadian Menard family that settled in Kaskaskia fifty years before his birth. A number of newspaper articles published during his lifetime claim that he was a grandson of Pierre Menard, the first lieutenant-governor of Illinois, who lived in Kaskaskia and owned a large number of slaves. By the time of John Willis Menard’s birth, slavery had been replaced in Illinois with a system of indentured servitude, but across the river in Missouri, slavery was still a legal institution.
Menard was educated locally at an abolitionist school in Sparta. A talented writer and orator, he was recognized early in his life for his speaking skills. In 1859, at the age of twenty-one, he traveled to Springfield to speak at a celebration marking the end of slavery in the West Indies. He garnered major attention for his speech, which was described as “stirring” and “truly the best of the day.” While he continued to produce pamphlets and pieces for abolitionist newspapers and presses, he also focused on furthering his education. He studied for two years at Iberia College in Ohio, one of the only colleges in America that admitted black students at the time. He spent time in Canada before returning to the United States, where he enlisted in the army and began working as a hospital steward.
As the Civil War was being waged, Menard moved to Washington, D.C., where he wrote for African-American newspapers and engaged in a vigorous debate with Frederick Douglass about the merits of establishing colonial settlements for freed slaves. Menard’s work drew the attention of James Mitchell, Abraham Lincoln’s Commissioner of Emigration, who appointed Menard to a clerkship. Philip W. Magness notes that the appointment made Menard “one of the first African-Americans appointed to an administrative role in the federal government.” The choice of Menard as a clerk was controversial within the office, and after only three months of work, he was compelled to resign by white colleagues who resented that he was being paid a salary equal to their own. The Secretary of the Interior, John Palmer Usher, offered to retain Menard in another position, but only if he would accept lower pay. Menard declined.
Menard continued to write and speak about abolitionist causes in Washington. He was a featured speaker at the Emancipation Jubilee in April 1863, which celebrated the first anniversary of the act which freed enslaved people in the District of Columbia; he composed and read a poem, “One Year Ago Today,” to commemorate the occasion. The poem celebrates the freedom of those who had been enslaved in Washington, but it also expresses hope that the same freedoms will soon be extended to all: “Give liberty to millions yet / ‘Neath despotism’s sway, / That they may praise thee as we did, / One year ago today.”
Mitchell hired Menard to lead an investigation into possible colonial settlements for former slaves in Belize in the summer of 1863. Intrigued by the possibilities opened up by emigration, Menard decided to leave the United States himself, settling in Jamaica for a short time in 1865. There, he met and married his wife, Elizabeth. The Menards had three children: Alice, Willis, and Marie Jeanette. After a brief stay in Jamaica, the family relocated to New Orleans, where Menard started a newspaper, The Radical Standard.
In 1868, Menard was nominated by the Louisiana Republican Party as their candidate in a special election for the second district’s congressional seat. In his campaign literature, Menard emphasized the importance of including African-Americans as representatives in the federal government: “The freeing of the long-oppressed race will not be adequate, and the great cause of equal rights will not be accomplished, until the colored man is seen in every department of the Government.” Menard won the election handily, becoming the first African-American person elected to the United States Congress.
However, his election was swiftly contested by his Democratic opponent, Caleb Hunt. Both men went to Washington, and Menard accepted an invitation to address Congress. In February 1869, Menard became the first African-American man to deliver a speech in the chamber of the House of Representatives. Newspapers reported that “the gallery was packed” in anticipation of Menard’s historic remarks. Menard set out a detailed, technical case as he defended the legitimacy of his election, arguing that “Congress should recognize the right of the voters of those parishes to be represented here.” He also spoke out against voter intimidation efforts designed to suppress the votes of African-American citizens. However, he was ultimately refused his seat, in large part because of his race. One Congressman, future President James A. Garfield, reportedly argued that it was “too early” to admit a black representative to Congress.
Menard returned to New Orleans and resumed his work in publishing. After relocating to Jacksonville, Florida, he also resumed a career in public service. He served as Superintendent of Schools in Duval County and was appointed in 1874 to Florida’s state legislature. He was elected twice as a county Justice of the Peace. He also continued to write, doing editorial work at various newspapers and publishing a book of poetry, Lays in Summer Lands, in 1879. By 1880, he was the editor of a prominent newspaper in Key West.
In 1889, Menard was appointed once more to a government position in Washington. This time, he was selected for a clerkship in the census bureau. A year later, he established a monthly periodical in Washington, the National Afro-American, which focused on “industrial, political, and literary” issues and featured contributions from notable African-American writers.
Menard died in Washington, D.C. in October 1893 at the age of 55. One contemporary obituary summed up Menard’s life: “He was a man of brilliant intellect and great ability, but his ambitious hopes were doomed to disappointment.” Recent efforts have been made, however, to highlight the achievements made by Menard during his lifetime. The University of Tampa Bay Press issued a new scholarly edition of Lays in Summer Lands in 2002, and two years later, the state of Illinois celebrated John Willis Menard Day, in recognition of his literary contributions and his public and community leadership.
John Willis Menard was inducted into The Randolph Society in 2017.