The International Vision of John Willis Menard, First African-American Elected to Congress

John Willis Menard

By Lorraine Boissoneault, Smithsonian

In July 1863, months after Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, a young African-American man from Illinois boarded a small ship in New York City and headed for Belize City, in what was then British Honduras. John Willis Menard, a college-educated political activist born to free parents of French Creole descent, made his Central American journey as a representative of Lincoln’s. His goal: to determine whether British Honduras was a suitable location for previously enslaved Americans to relocate.

Menard’s trip to Central America was undoubtedly an unusual period in his early political career—one that never came to fruition—but it set the stage for decades of internationalism. Wherever he moved and whatever position he held, Menard repeatedly considered African-American liberation in the context of the New World’s dependence on the work of enslaved laborers.

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