Monday, June 21, 2010

June 21: Joseph Rainey, First African American US Congressman

He was born a slave, freed, raised in the South, fled during the Civil War, and became the first black American to be a United States Congressman, serving in the U.S. House of Representatives for eight years.

Joseph Hayne Rainey was born a slave in Georgetown, South Carolina on June 21, 1832. His father, Edward, was a barber who shrewdly managed his monies, allowing him to purchase freedom for himself, his wife Gracia, and his children in the 1840s. After buying their freedom, the Rainey’s moved in 1846 to Charleston, South Carolina, where George provided a comfortable living through his skills as a barber by working at one of the top hotels in South Carolina, the Mills Hotel. The Mills Hotel had opened its doors in 1853 and soon achieved a reputation for excellence – and is still in existence today. In an unusual turn of events, George Rainey became prosperous enough by 1860 that he could afford two slaves of his own.

While not much is known about Joseph Rainey’s youth, it is known that he decided to follow in his father’s footsteps by becoming a barber himself. He did receive limited schooling. In the late-1850s, Rainey moved to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania where he met and married Susan – who was originally from the West Indies. They moved back to Charleston in 1859.

Rainey was twenty-eight years old when the American Civil War erupted in April 1861, with the shelling of Fort Sumter, Charleston, South Carolina – where Joseph Rainey lived and worked. Rainey was soon drafted by the Confederate government to work on the network of fortifications around Charleston Harbor. He soon moved from that labor into being a steward on a blockade-runner.

In 1862 Rainey and his wife secretly fled from their home, escaping to Bermuda for the duration of the war on a blockade-runner that traveled from Charleston to Bermuda. They settled for three years in St. George, Bermuda, where they earned a living – Rainey as a barber and his wife as a successful dressmaker. When a yellow fever epidemic struck St. George, the Rainey’s moved to Hamilton where Rainey worked as a barber and a bartender at the Hamilton Hotel.

Rainey and his wife returned to Charleston after the end of the Civil War. He soon became involved in Reconstruction politics.

In 1865 Rainey – accompanied by his older brother Edward – attended the Colored People’s Convention at Zion Presbyterian Church. The church was pastured by a missionary, Jonathan Gibbs, who has started a school for freed Blacks, and was a ten-year veteran of the abolitionist movement. Gibbs had been sent by the Presbyterian Board of Missions for Freed-men, and he would annoy white South Carolinians by hosting a convention that advocated rights for the newly freed slaves. As a result, he would be exiled to pastor a church in a more remote South Carolina county. Gibbs soon left South Carolina. Moving to Florida, he began a political career there that would enable him to become that state’s first Black Secretary of State.

The convention sought ways to advance “the interests of our people”, seeking educational benefits, jobs, and political influence. The effect of the convention was felt by Rainey when he became a member of the executive committee of the state Republican Party, and was elected in 1868 to represent Georgetown at the 1868 constitutional convention. That convention wrote a new constitution for South Carolina. During this time Rainey favored a poll tax – if the monies gathered were used for exclusively for public education. He also supported an effort to legalize the collection of debts contracted before the Civil War including debts incurred in the purchase of slaves. Neither of these ideas were approved in the new constitution. However, he successfully supported an amnesty bill which allowed former Confederate soldiers to regain their civil rights.

As a symbol of the growing power of Reconstruction in the South, Rainey was appointed as a brigadier general in the state militia and served as an agent in the State Land Commission. He also attended the 1869 State Labor Convention, which lobbied the General Assembly for pro-labor legislation to protect black workers.

In 1870 Rainey was elected to the state Senate of South Carolina, where he was soon appointed as the chairman of the senate Finance Committee.

Later that year – on December 12, 1870 - he was elected to fill a vacancy that opened in the U.S. House of Representatives when the House refused to seat Benjamin F. Whittemore. Whittemore had been censured by the House for corruption, and was re-elected by the people of South Carolina – after which the House refused to seat him.

Rainey would be re-elected to Congress several times, serving until March 3, 1879. He was the longest-serving Black Congressman until the 1950s when William L. Dawson broke Rainey’s record.

While in Congress during Reconstruction, Rainey consistently supported legislation designed to protect the civil rights of black Americans – especially those living in the post-Civil War South. He advocated passage of the 1872 Ku Klux Klan Act to rid the south of the organization. The act was signed into law by President Grant. Concerning the need for this act, Rainey stated:

“When myself and my colleagues shall leave these Halls and turn our footsteps toward our southern homes, we know not that the assassin may await our coming, as marked for his vengeance.”
He also supported a civil rights bill that was sponsored by Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner, which outlawed racial discrimination on juries, in schools, on transportation, and in public accommodations. The amnesty bill passed in 1874 and the civil rights bill was enacted in 1875. He also was an advocate in Congress for Chinese and American Indian rights.

In May 1874 he would become the first black American to preside as Speaker pro tempore over the House. He also received seats on three standing committees: Freedmen’s Affairs (41st–43rd Congresses), Indian Affairs (43rd Congress), and Invalid Pensions (44th–45th Congresses, 1875–1879).

He would win reelection in 1876 against the Democratic candidate, John Smythe Richardson. Richardson would challenge the results of the election based on the grounds of intimidation of white voters by the federal soldiers and black militia that guarded the voting booths around the state. The challenge was rejected.

But Richardson ran again against Rainey two years later – this time as Reconstruction was coming to a slow and painful ending. This time he won, replacing Rainey in Congress on March 3, 1879. Reconstruction was over, and the whites regained political control of South Carolina.

Rainey returned to his home in Georgetown, South Carolina. He was appointed as an Internal Revenue agent in South Carolina on May 22, 1879, serving until July 15, 1881. Moving back to Washington, D.C., he was involved in banking and a railroad. He retired due to illness in 1886, moving back to Georgetown.

Rainey died in Georgetown on August 1, 1887, at the age of fifty-five. He was buried in the Baptist Cemetery in Georgetown.

He was a unique mixture of compassion and hard-headed reality. A successful businessman, he conducted himself with honor during a time when many in politics were solely seeking personal gain. He would be honored 118 years after his death when a portrait of him was unveiled and displayed in the Capitol in Washington, D.C., becoming the first portrait of a black legislator to be displayed in the Capitol. Perhaps his words, spoken to the Congress, best sums up Rainey’s post-Civil War efforts and beliefs:

“We are earnest in our support of the Government. We were earnest in the house of the nation’s perils and dangers; and now, in our country’s comparative peace and tranquility, we are earnest for our rights.”

Bella Online
Biographical Dictionary of the U.S. Congress
Black Americans in Congress
Black Past
News In History
Online 1911 Encyclopedia
South Carolina Department of Archives and History
South Carolina Encyclopedia


Photo of Rainey, Library of Congress
Photo of Rainey seated, Library of Congress
Rainey Home, SC Dept. of Archives and History
Portrait as a Congressman, House of Representatives

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