Image of the 2023 Progress to Power Exhibition in the New York State Capitol

Progress to Power

The Legacy of New York’s Black Legislators
Progress to Power: The Legacy of New York’s Black Legislators
Exhibition on View
Progress to Power: The Legacy of New York’s Black Legislators
Monday - Friday, 7:00 a.m. - 7:00 p.m.
February 6 - February 28, 2023
Governor's Reception Room, 2nd Floor
New York State Capitol

This exhibit highlights the first Black officials elected in the New York State legislature. These individuals broke new ground of legislative representation for the State. Their accomplishments and the legislation they advocated for sheds light on issues important to Black New Yorkers and demonstrate the progress made in New York State.

Although great strides and progress have taken place, voter suppression and disenfranchisement remain contentious issues in the United States. New York State is committed to ensuring that all New Yorkers have equal and fair access to voting.

The Firsts

Edward A. Johnson


Edward A. Johnson made history as the first elected Black person in the New York State Legislature. Born into slavery, Johnson was one of eleven children to Columbus and Eliza Johnson in North Carolina. He worked as an educator and lawyer in the South until 1907 when he moved to Harlem, New York. There, he established a successful law practice and soon became involved with the political community in Harlem.
In 1917, he was elected to the New York State Assembly with the help of the United Civic League’s campaign, an independent organization of Black men in Harlem rallying together to increase representation in government. During his time in the Assembly, Johnson chaired committees dedicated to issues surrounding city affairs, agriculture, and penal institutions. One of his most noteworthy achievements was sponsoring an Act to amend the 1913 Governor Levy Civil Rights Law that expanded the definition on where discrimination was prohibited in public facilities including hotels, restaurants, amusement parks, and more.
Image of Attorney Edward A. Johnson

Bessie Allison Buchanan


Bessie Allison Buchanan became the first Black woman to be elected to the New York State Assembly in 1954. Prior to her career in politics, Buchanan spent fifteen years as an actress, starring in theatrical productions of "Shuffle Along" and "Showboat." Throughout her ten years in the Assembly, she was on several committees including the Committee on Public Institutions, the Committee on Social Welfare and Relief, and the Committee on the City of New York. Later, Buchanan served as the State’s Human Rights Commissioner under Governor Nelson Rockefeller.

Buchanan was passionate about using her platform to fight against discrimination and introduced more than 150 bills, many focusing on civil rights and improving public education and neighborhoods, but her advocacy went beyond legislation. In a New York Amsterdam News article, Buchanan “declared that as the first Negro woman in the State Assembly she would fight for greater recognition of women in other branches of government.”
Photo of Bessie Allison Buchanan

Julius A. Archibald


“I want to be considered not as a Negro senator but as a senator who happens to be a Negro.” -Julius Archibald, 1953

Julius A. Archibald was the first Black senator in New York State. Archibald was born in Trinidad, British West Indies in 1901 and moved to New York in 1917 where he earned his law degree from New York Law School. Before he was elected to office, Archibald was a teacher at a public junior high school for twenty-six years. He became interested in politics “accidentally” while attending citizen meetings in Harlem hosted by a life-long friend and member of the United Democratic Club. Archibald ran his campaign on a civil rights platform and viewed his election as an “opportunity for public service.” During his time as Senator, Archibald pledged to work on issues concerning public housing, rent control, increasing aid for education and hospitals, and improving rehabilitation centers.
Black and white photo of Julius A. Archibald

Constance Baker Motley


“I am proving in everything I do that blacks and women are as capable as anyone.”

Constance Baker Motley had a prolific career before becoming the first Black female Senator in New York State. She was the principal trial attorney for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund and was nationally known for cases she argued before the United States Supreme Court during her tenure. According to the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic, and Asian Legislative Caucus after Motley’s election to the Senate “she immediately began a campaign to extend civil rights legislation and for laws creating additional low and middle-income housing.” Her term in the Senate was cut short when she was elected to fill a vacancy for Manhattan Borough President—the first woman to do so. In 1966, she became the first Black woman to be appointed a Federal Court Judge to the Southern District of New York where she was appointed Chief Judge in 1982.
Black and white photo of Constance Baker Motley
The Origins of the Black and Puerto Rican Caucus


Newspaper article image of NYAN Black and Puerto Rican Caucus

Shortly after Motley’s tenure as Senator, Black and Puerto Rican legislators worked together to form a caucus in order to increase representation in the State Legislature. Deemed “The 1966 Midnight Walk,” Black and Puerto Rican legislators gathered in the early hours of the morning at the Speaker of the Assembly’s office to negotiate for a more balanced division of power and leadership for legislators of color. Their efforts were successful and for the first time, Black and Puerto Rican legislators held positions of leadership, such as committee chair or majority whip, in the New York State Legislature. 1975 was a particular turning point for the caucus when they successfully held up the passage of the New York State Budget until it more accurately reflected the diverse needs of all New Yorkers. In 2005, the caucus changed their name to the New York State Black, Puerto Rican, Hispanic & Asian Legislative Caucus.

The trailblazers celebrated in this exhibition created a long-lasting legacy for Black politicians and lawmakers in New York State.
Black and white photo of Adam Clayton Powell, Jr.

“Walk together, talk together, love together, worship together, live together and we'll win tomorrow.”


Adam Clayton Powell Jr. was the first Black person to represent the state of New York in the United States Congress. During his first term, he introduced legislation to outlaw lynching and the poll tax, and to end discrimination in the armed forces, housing, employment, and transportation. He attached an anti–discrimination clause to so many pieces of legislation, the rider became known as “The Powell Amendment.”


Image of Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes

In December 2018, Assemblywoman Crystal D. Peoples-Stokes was appointed Majority Leader of the New York State Assembly, becoming the first woman and first Black person to serve in the role. She is a fearless fighter for diversity in our state and has accomplished ending 90 years of prohibition by legalizing and decriminalizing cannabis; championed community schools and a nurse in every school; and constructed the only monument in the U.S. for African American Veterans honoring and recognizing their impact in all 12 major U.S. conflicts.

Black and white photo of Shirley Chisholm

"If they don’t give you a seat at the table, bring a folding chair.”

Shirley Chisholm was first elected in the New York State Assembly in 1964 and four years later, became the first Black Congresswoman, serving seven terms in the United States House of Representatives. Chisholm represented the 12th Congressional District of New York centered in Brooklyn from 1969 to 1983 championing causes such as civil rights, women’s rights, and economic equality. She was the first Black candidate to seek a major party nomination for President.


Image of Andrea Stewart-Cousins

In 2012, Senator Andrea Stewart-Cousins was the first woman to lead a legislative conference and is the first woman, and Black woman to lead a legislative body when she was elected Temporary President and Senate Majority Leader. She has been widely recognized as a trailblazer in local and state government and as a champion for progressive action. 

Image of Carl E. Heastie

Speaker Carl E. Heastie is the first Black man to serve as Speaker of the New York State Assembly. Since becoming Speaker, the Assembly has passed historic legislation on causes such as criminal justice, voting registration, and women’s reproductive health.











Image of the signing of the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York

 As states across the United States consider legislation that affects voting rights, under the leadership of Speaker Heastie and Senator Stewart-Cousins, the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act of New York was signed into law in 2022. The law expands access to voting by prohibiting voter dilution, suppression, intimidation, deception or obstruction and requires jurisdictions with a history of civil or voting rights violations to seek preclearance for changes to important election policies and practices.