• Exploring American History

Republican Joseph Hayne Rainey was the first black member of the U.S. House

Born a slave on June 21, 1832, in Georgetown, South Carolina, Joseph Hayne Rainey was the son of Edward L. and Grace Rainey. Joseph’s racial nationality was a mixture of African and French. Edward worked as a barber, having obtained permission from his master to do so, with a portion of his earnings required by law to be given to his master.

Edward regularly saved another portion and in time used these savings to purchase his freedom and that of his family. He then moved his family to Charleston, South Carolina. Here Edward continued his career as a barber at the fashionable Mills House Hotel. When he was old enough, Joseph became a barber apprentice with his father.

In 1859, Joseph Rainey moved to Philadelphia. Here he met a young woman named Susan who had emigrated from the West Indies. Like Rainey, she too was of African and French ancestry. They married and later returned to South Carolina where two sons and one daughter were eventually born.

When the Civil War erupted in 1861, the Confederate government drafted Rainey. At first, he dug ditches to fortify Charleston’s outskirts, then worked on ships used for blockade running as a laborer and cook. In 1862, the Rainey family was able to escape and relocate to Bermuda, a self-governed British colony that had abolished slavery in 1834. Though he fled a battling nation, he would later return to play an active role in helping to rebuild a stronger United States.

The thriving economy and growing population of Bermuda provided a welcoming domicile for the family. Settling in the town of St. George, Rainey resumed the occupation of a barber. Susan became a successful dressmaker with her own shop. They moved once more in 1865 to the town of Hamilton, due to an outbreak of yellow fever in St. George. Here Rainey continued his occupation as a barber working at the Hamilton Hotel, along with tending bar. Over time, the Raineys became respected members of the community and built a prosperous life.

While living in Bermuda, the Raineys stayed abreast of the news about the war back home by soldiers passing through. Once they knew the Civil War was over, Rainey moved his family back to South Carolina. The wealth he accrued in Bermuda elevated Rainey to a leadership position in the community, after which the world of politics came knocking at his door. Rainey soon became a member of the executive committee of South Carolina’s Republican Party in Georgetown and in 1868, a delegate to South Carolina’s constitutional convention. Two years later, he was a state senator.

In late 1870, Benjamin F. Whittemore was the representative for South Carolina’s 1st District to the 41st Congress of the United States. He was censured for corruption by the House and forced to leave after being charged with selling appointments to the U.S. military academies. Rainey was elected to fill Whittemore’s position and took his seat on December 12, 1870.

Rainey now became the first black individual to serve in the United States House of Representatives. One month later, he was joined by the second black member, Jefferson Long of Georgia.

Though Rainey was the first black to serve in the House of Representatives, he was the second to serve in Congress (U.S. Senator Hiram Revels was the first). He was, however, the first to be directly elected. Prior to the passage of the 17th Amendment, senators were appointed by their state’s legislature.

On October 19, 1870, Rainey won a full term in the 42nd Congress by defeating his Democratic opponent, C. W. Dudley, with 63% of the vote. For the 43rd Congress, he ran unopposed. Rainey would serve until March 3, 1879. His record as the longest-serving black congressman would later be broken by Democrat William L. Dawson in the 1950s.

While serving in office, Rainey represented his white and black constituents equally. He made use of his political clout with South Carolina’s state legislature to retain customs duty on rice, the chief export of his district and of the state. His committee appointments reflected his work in the area of black civil rights, in addition to his party loyalty. Rainey served on three standing committees: Freedmen’s Affairs (41st – 43rd Congresses), Indian Affairs (43rd Congress) and Invalid Pensions (44th – 45th Congress); in addition to a number of select committees, such as the Centennial Celebration (44th Congress). His work on the Freemen’s Affairs Committee garnered him the greatest recognition.

On April 1, 1871, Rainey delivered his first major speech in the House. In his message, he argued the need for federal troops to protect Southern blacks from the recently established Ku Klux Klan.

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.”

Shortly after giving this speech, Rainey received a letter which had been written in red ink. The text of the letter instructed Rainey and anyone else who advocated black civil rights to “prepare to meet your God” Though President Ulysses S. Grant signed into law the Ku Klux Klan Act on April 20, 1871, it did little to thwart the terrorism spread by the Klan throughout the South.

In 1874, Rainey moved his family to a home in Windsor, Connecticut due to increased violence against blacks in the South. The home was listed as a “summer residence” because Rainey could not consider that his main residence and still represent South Carolina. Here he was an active member of the First Church of Windsor. Located at 299 Palisado Avenue, the “Joseph Rainey House” is one of 130 stops that constitute the Connecticut Freedom Trail. Establish in 1996, the Trail highlights black Americans who had an active role in gaining civil rights and freedom.

While serving in Congress, Rainey actively worked on legislation to protect the civil rights of blacks in the South, in addition to promoting the southern economy. He was also appointed to the Committee of Indian Affairs where he became a defender of the rights of Native Americans.

In April 1874, Rainey made history again when he became the first black Speaker of the House, taking the chair from Speaker James G. Blaine. In this position, he oversaw the debate concerning an appropriations bill that would provide for the management of Indian reservations. He also expressed opposition to legislation that restricted the number of Asian immigrants seeking to enter the United States.

Republican Senator Charles Sumner submitted his Civil Rights Bill in 1875. This legislation outlawed racial discrimination in schools and public accommodations, in addition to public transportation and juries. Though Rainey’s main attention was directed towards the Amnesty Act, he sided with Sumner on this legislation. His support of the Civil Rights Bill was due to the segregation he personally experienced, both in Washington, D.C. and South Carolina, in the form of higher-priced drinks in pubs and violation of his personal civil rights.

Rainey won reelection to his House seat in 1876 by defeating Democrat John Smythe Richardson. Richardson challenged the results, stating voters were intimidated by black militias and federal soldiers. South Carolina’s Democratic Governor Wade Hampton certified Richardson’s election; however, Rainey stated elections could only be certified by the Secretary of State. Rainey took his seat despite the fact the Committee on Elections declared the seat vacant in May 1878 due to irregularities.

The House, however, failed to act on the report, so Rainey maintained his seat and served out his term.

During the next two years, white Democrats were able to solidify their hold over politics in South Carolina through the efforts of groups such as the Red Shirts. The Red Shirts was a white paramilitary group that became active at the end of Reconstruction, making their debut in Mississippi. The group was named for the red shirts they wore in an effort to make themselves highly visible in the community and act as a threat to Southern Republicans, both white and black.

Despite the fact blacks were in the majority population-wise in South Carolina, white Democrats were able to regain state power through the use of intimidation, violence and assassinations through the efforts of the Red Shirts and other paramilitary organizations. They later passed voter registration and other electoral laws, in addition to amendments to South Carolina’s constitution, which served to strip blacks of their political power by disfranchising them.

Reconstruction served up a number of setbacks regarding the civil rights of Southern blacks and played havoc with Rainey’s final two terms in the House. On July 4, 1876, black militia groups celebrated America’s centennial with a parade through Hamburg, South Carolina; a small, all-black community located across the Savannah River from Augusta, Georgia and solidly Republican.

Two white farmers from neighboring Edgefield County, Thomas Butler and Henry Getzen attempted to drive their carriage down Market Street, the town’s main road, during the celebration. The black soldiers, under the command of Captain D. L. “Dock” Adams, continued with their parade. A war of words ensued and the farmers were eventually able to pass through the parade ranks with their wagon. The following day, Butler and Getzen filed a complaint in Hamburg’s local court. The case was scheduled by Judge Prince Rivers to be heard on July 8th. Edgefield Attorney Matthew C. Butler was chosen to serve as counsel for the two men.

On the day of the hearing, hundreds of armed white men descended upon the black community. Hamburg’s militia members then retreated to their armory. A battle erupted during the afternoon, resulting in the deaths of a white attacker, a militiaman and Hamburg’s Marshall, James Cook. The white mob soon laid siege on the armory, taking the bulk of the militiamen prisoner.

The prisoners were then marched to a patch of ground later known as "The Dead Ring" due to the circle the captors formed around the prisoners. In the end, four of the prisoners were executed. As others fled, guns were trained on them in an effort to shoot as many as possible, resulting in at least two deaths. The white invaders ended the siege by looting the town. A number of the invaders also desired to set fire to the town; however, they were restrained from doing so by the group’s leaders. The event was later named the "Hamburg Massacre."

Democrat Wade Hampton used the Hamburg Massacre as the chief campaign message in his bid to become South Carolina’s governor. His goal was to illustrate the racial danger of having a Republican-controlled government. His election, and that of the Democrats, ended Reconstruction in South Carolina.

A bitter debate later broke out on the House Floor during the 45th Congress as Rainey condemned the murders while engaging in a war of words with Democratic Representative Samuel “Sunset” Cox of New York. Cox was of the opinion the “Hamburg Massacre” was a direct result of poor government created by South Carolina’s black leaders.

In 1878, Richardson was again Rainey’s opponent in his re-election bid. This time, Rainey was defeated, due to the efforts of the Democrats the prior two years. Though Rainey’s service in the House may have been considered symbolic by some, he demonstrated the political distinction of a seasoned, independent thinking Representative. On the House floor, Rainey stated:

I tell you that the Negro will never rest until he gets his rights. We ask [for civil rights] because we know it is proper; not because we want to deprive any other class of the rights and immunities they enjoy, but because they are granted to us by the law of the land.”

Joseph Rainey retired from the House on March 3, 1879. Though his career in Congress may have ended, Rainey was appointed as an agent of the US Treasury in South Carolina. He had the endorsement of 84 Representatives, one of which was future President James A. Garfield of Ohio. He held this post for two years, then moved into private commerce in Washington, D.C., where he worked in banking and brokerage for five years.

In 1886, Rainey was in ill health. He retired and returned to Georgetown. There, he and Susan opened a millinery shop. Joseph Hayne Rainey died of congestive fever on August 1, 1887, in Georgetown, the city of his birth. He was laid to rest there in Baptist Cemetery.

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