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–by Joanna Hallac

I recently had the pleasure of sitting down with Congressman Jason Altmire (D-PA) for a conversation that will appear in our ongoing “Insider’s Guide to Capitol Hill” interview series after the New Year; however, something came up in the course of that interview that struck my interest and deserved some investigation. In recalling a story, the Congressman made mention of the so-called Rayburn “Board of Education” room inside the Capitol, which I had heard of but did not in fact know a great deal about. So, I hit the books to find out the history of this room, H-128, and to take a closer look at its relationship to Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX).

The “Board of Education” room, as it is known in the Capitol, is tucked away on the first floor of the building and was a part of the 1857 expansion, originally housing the Committee on Territories until the late 19th century when the Journal Clerk and Committee on Elections moved into the space. So when and how did it come to be so closely associated with the Democratic delegation and leadership, specifically Speaker Rayburn?

Portrait of Speaker Sam Rayburn (D-TX) that hung in H-128 until 1962 (Office of the Clerk, House of Representatives)

Since the time of Speaker Joseph “Uncle Joe” Cannon (R-IL) in the early 20th century, H-128 began to be occupied by Speakers, with Nicholas Longworth (R-OH) using it as a private conference room where he could have a drink during the Prohibition era with his friend and colleague John Nance Garner (D-TX), who would succeed him as Speaker. It was also at this point that H-128 was first dubbed the “Bureau of Education” by Garner, as the room would be used by the leadership to give new members an introduction to the rules and institutional procedures of the House.

Once Sam Rayburn became Speaker of the House in 1940, the room got its current name, the “Board of Education,” later taking on his surname as well. He would gather there with the Democratic leadership to plot their strategy, in addition to gathering for drinks and poker games with a close knit group of members and even some reporters. The regulars in H-128 included Lyndon Johnson (who was a Democratic Representative from Texas from 1937 until he was elected to the Senate in 1948), House Parliamentarian Lewis Deschler, and Harry Truman, who would spend lots of time there as both a Democratic Senator from Missouri and later as Vice President. Congressman Altmire was in fact telling his story about Harry Truman and a momentous visit he had to the Board of Education room, but I will leave those details to when his interview is published in its entirety in the next few weeks so as not to give anything away just yet.

At the time of the 1857 expansion that created this room in the Capitol, Constantino Brumidi’s assistant, James Leslie, was tasked with painting the ceiling and lunettes in H-128. During Speaker Rayburn’s tenure, a Texas “lone star” was added to one of the lunettes, perhaps officially marking this room as a Texas Democratic meeting place of sorts. In 2007, according to an article in the Houston Chronicle from that same year, the Texas Democratic contingent in the House were able to convince then-Speaker Nancy Pelosi to allow them to hold weekly delegation lunches in the historic room that is steeped in both Texas and House history.

This is a mural depicting the Texas "lone star" that is in the Board of Education room (Office of the Clerk, House of Representatives)

The portrait of Speaker Sam Rayburn hung in the Board of Education room until June 19, 1962 when it was taken down after his death and moved to the Speaker’s Lobby to join the collection of portraits of all past Speakers of the House that are kept there. After serving as Speaker longer than any other person in our history, Rayburn will also forever be linked to his Board of Education room where many a drink was poured and many a strategy plotted. H-128 is still considered one of the “Speaker’s rooms” and therefore not just for anyone to wander into or use as they wish; however, no matter what it used for in the future, its past will be forever linked with some of the most famous members to ever wander the halls of the Capitol.

Make sure you stay tuned to our blog into the New Year to read the forthcoming interview with Congressman Jason Altmire (D-PA) to hear his insights and thoughts on a range of topics, including the conclusion to his story involving Harry Truman and the Board of Education room (and if you already know this story then keep it to yourself until after we post the interview!). Is there another room in the Capitol you’re curious about? Feel free to let us know and perhaps we can do some investigating or help to point you in the right direction. In the meantime, here’s to hoping all of you have a happy and healthy holiday season!

Source cited:
Office of the Clerk, http://artandhistory.house.gov/art_artifacts/speakers-rooms/board-of-education.aspx, (December 20, 2011).