Born. April 3, 1838,
Kaskaskia, Ill., U.S.--died. Oct. 8, 1893, Washington, D.C.),
of color elected to the U.S. Congress, who was denied his seat by that
During the Civil War (1861-65) he served as a clerk in the U.S.
Department of the Interior. In 1865 he moved to New Orleans,
where he became active in the Republican Party, serving as inspector
of customs and later as a commissioner of streets.
He also published a newspaper, The Free South, later named The
Radical Standard. Elected to Congress from Louisiana in 1868
to fill an unexpired term, Menard failed to overcome an election
challenge by the loser, and Congress refused to seat either
man. In 1871 he moved to Florida, where he was again active
in the Republican Party and published the Island City News in
John Willis Menard was also a native of Kaskaskia, Illinois.
Born there on April 3, 1838, Menard spent his first eighteen
years in the small historic village.
details of John Willis Menard’s early life in Illinois
remain sketchy. He was not a slave; some sources describe
him as a mulatto--that is, part white. Both of Menard’s
parents, said to be of “French Creole” origins,
were born in Illinois.
The family seems to have had ties to New Orleans as well.
It is believed Menard spent his adolescence at work on a farm
in or around Kaskaskia before attending an abolitionist school
in Sparta, Illinois. He later studied at Iberia College in
Ohio. Although he never received a degree, Menard’s
brief education laid the groundwork for a career as a person
political leader and writer.
Throughout his life, Menard was very active in promoting civil
rights for African Americans. In 1859, at the age of twenty-one,
he spoke in Springfield, Illinois at a celebration to mark
the end of slavery in the West Indies.
to the crowd at the State Fairgrounds on the subject of American
Slavery was covered in the Illinois State Journal which stated
that Menard “gave able remarks in defense of Liberty
and equality. His speech was truly the best of the day.”
Other great Men of Color in the Civil War Era
In 1860, John Willis Menard published An Address to the Free
Colored People of Illinois. At that time, he maintained a
residence in Randolph County, Illinois. Two years after the
start of the Civil War, Menard became the first Creole American
(person of color) to obtain a clerkship in the Interior Department
in Washington, D.C.
Moving to New
Orleans to participate in the reconstruction of Louisiana’s
government after the end of the Civil War, Menard became the
editor of New Orleans newspaper Free South. In 1868, he campaigned
and secured the Republican nomination for the unexpired term
of deceased Congressman James Mann.
On election day, Menard clearly received the majority of votes.
Still, his opponent, Caleb S. Hunt, contested the election.
Congressman James A. Garfield, who would later become a U.S.
president, stated that “it was too early to admit a
Person of Color to the U.S. Congress.” The Committee
on Elections of the U.S. House of Representatives agreed and
denied Menard his seat. In his quest to be seated in the House
of Representatives, Menard spoke before Congress in 1869.
He was the first Creole American to stand on the floor of
the House and address the Representatives.