African-Americans who made political history in New York

Letitia_James
Letitia_James
Emil Cohen/New York City Council Office
Letitia James

African-Americans who made political history in New York

From Edward A. Johnson and Adam Clayton Powell Jr. to Andrea Stewart-Cousins and Letitia James.
January 20, 2019

For the first time in history, the New York state Legislature is led by two African-Americans – Assembly Speaker Carl Heastie and state Senate Majority Leader Andrea Stewart-Cousins. That fact qualifies 2019 as a landmark year, but black lawmakers have been trailblazing both city and state politics for a long time – from Constance Baker Motley, the first African-American woman elected to the state Senate in 1964, to the state’s first black governor, David Paterson, who took over in 2008. To mark Martin Luther King Jr. Day, City & State assembled a list of New York’s notable black political pioneers – all of whom show the progress that’s been made and the work that’s left to be done.

Edward A. Johnson

In 1917, Edward A. Johnson was the first African-American elected to the New York state Legislature. Though he only served in the Assembly for one term, Johnson gained national attention for his writing, including a children’s history book on African-American achievements.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr.

Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the first African-American man elected to New York City Council in 1941. He later became the first black man to represent New York in Congress, joining the U.S. House of Representatives in 1945 and ultimately serving 12 terms.

Julius A. Archibald

New York’s first black state senator, Julius Archibald, was elected in 1952. The trailblazer introduced and pushed for civil rights legislation, although it may played a role in losing his Senate seat after just one term.

Constance Baker Motley

Constance Baker Motley’s life was filled with firsts: the first black woman to be elected to the state Senate in 1964, the first woman to serve as Manhattan borough president, and finally, the first black woman to serve as a federal court judge in 1966.

Shirley Chisholm

In 1968, Shirley Chisholm became the first African-American woman to be elected to Congress, serving New York’s 12th Congressional District in Brooklyn for seven consecutive terms. Not only that – “Fighting Shirley” Chisholm was the first black woman to seek the presidential nomination from a major political party in 1972.

Mary Pinkett

Mary Pinkett became the first black woman elected to New York City Council in 1974 – serving the people of Brooklyn in that role until 2001.  

David Dinkins

David Dinkins made history as New York City’s first black mayor back in 1990. At 91 years old, Dinkins is still a strong presence in the city, most recently as a professor at Columbia University.

David Paterson

The first African-American governor of New York, David Paterson was sworn into the office in 2008 after serving as former Gov. Eliot Spitzer’s lieutenant governor beginning in 2007.

Carl Heastie

The current speaker of the New York state Assembly, Carl Heastie is the first African-American to hold that position.

Letitia James

Letitia James has only been New York’s attorney general for a few weeks, but she has made history as both the first woman and the first African-American to be elected to the post. Previously, she was New York City’s first black public advocate.

Andrea Stewart-Cousins

Andrea Stewart-Cousins is now not only the first African-American woman, but also the first woman, to lead a New York legislative chamber as state Senate majority leader.

Letitia James has only been New York’s attorney general for a few weeks, but she has made history as both the first woman and the first African-American to be elected to the post. Previously, she was New York City’s first black public advocate.
Letitia James
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8 Photos
  • Letitia James
  • Edward A. Johnson
  • Adam Clayton Powell Jr.
  • Shirley Chisholm
  • David Dinkins
  • David Paterson
  • Carl Heastie
  • Andrea Stewart-Cousins
Annie McDonough
Annie McDonough
is a tech and policy reporter at City & State.
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