On this date, William Henry Smith—a prominent African-American Washingtonian—was appointed Librarian of the House. Smith was a District of Columbia native, born in August 1833, and he lived in the city his entire life. House records show him on Clerk of the House Edward McPherson’s payroll as a library messenger as early as 1864, at the time that Whitelaw Reid (future editor of the New York Tribune and U.S. vice presidential candidate) served as House Librarian.
According to an article published decades later in the Chicago Tribune, Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts helped Smith to secure the messenger’s job. He remained in that post until McPherson (who had left and returned as Clerk) elevated him to House Librarian in the 47th Congress (1881–1883). The appointment proved controversial for McPherson and the Republican majority because Smith became one of the highest-ranking African Americans in the federal government at a time when the hard-won rights of many freedmen in the South were being rolled back.
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