Since this is Black History Month, I have opted to cover some figures of black history in politics. Today’s is the first black Congressman in history, South Carolina’s Joseph Rainey (1832-1887).
Born into slavery, his father Edward had the good fortune of being permitted by his master to work a side-business as a barber. He would contribute a portion of what he made to his master as was law, but was able to earn and save enough money to buy the freedom of himself, his wife, and two children (U.S. House). Joseph Rainey would follow in his father’s footsteps as a barber in South Carolina. Although a free man, his rights were still limited. As an article in Smithsonian Magazine explains, “Their liberties were limited by law. Every free man over the age of 15 was required to have a white “guardian” to enable him to live in the city, and any “insolence” left the African American man open to violent assault. Free people of color had to pay an annual tax; if they failed to pay it, they could be sold into slavery for one year. Wherever they went, free people of color were assumed to be enslaved and had to show documents to prove they were not” (Donaldson). In 1861, with the outbreak of the War of the Rebellion, Rainey was drafted into the Confederate Army to perform menial labor. The following year, he and his wife fled to Bermuda, where both made a good living and with the money they made. During this time Rainey received a greater education, including reading classic literature which prepared him for civic life (Donaldson). They returned to South Carolina in 1865, and Rainey became active in the Republican Party. In 1868, he participated in the Constitutional convention of South Carolina which instituted a poll tax to fund a public school system. During this time, his conservatism manifested in his expressed belief that those who don’t own property shouldn’t have the right to vote (Richardson). This position traces back to the Federalist Party, whose members believed that people who didn’t own property had no investment in the current governance. In 1870, an opportunity arose with Congress’s refusal to seat B.F. Whittemore, a corrupt carpetbagger who had been censured for selling appointments to naval and military academies at $2000 each and had been reelected after resigning to avoid expulsion. (Rocky Mount Telegram). Rainey was elected in his place, becoming the first black representative in American history.
Rainey usually impressed those he met and many were curiosity. As the Chicago Daily Tribune wrote on him, “His long bushy side whiskers are precisely like a white man’s. His physical organization seems to be sufficiently strong to bear all the strain his mental construction will give. His forehead is middling broad and high and the ennobling organization of the mind is well developed. He has an excellent memory, and his perceptive powers are good. His polite and dignified bearing enforces respect. Of course Mr. Rainey will not compare with the best men of the House of Representatives, but he is a good average congressman, and stands head and shoulders above the ordinary carpet bagger” (Donaldson).He was largely conservative on matters regarding business and monetary issues. He usually supported railroad interests and opposed concepts like “free silver”, expanding silver currency generally, and greenbacks. He did, however, vote for the Bland-Allison Act over President Hayes’ veto in 1878 as a compromise. Rainey’s central cause, however, was protecting the rights of freedmen. For one day in 1872, he presided over the House of Representatives, another first for a black man. As one newspaper noted about the fears of racists, “For the first time in the nation’s history a colored man, in the person of Hon. Joseph H. Rainey, of South Carolina, on Thursday last presided over the deliberations of the House of Representatives….The earth continues to revolve on its axis” (Donaldson).
Rainey, as did almost all other Republicans, supported the Ku Klux Klan Act in 1871 to curb racially motivated violence against politically active blacks and white Republicans. The Ku Klux Klan of the Reconstruction period was by far the most violent of the incarnations of the Klan and had a body count of thousands. Rainey strongly supported the Civil Rights Act of 1875 and asked in a speech,
Why is it that colored members of Congress cannot enjoy the same immunities that are accorded to white members? Why cannot we stop at hotels here without meeting objection? Why cannot we go into restaurants without being insulted? We are here enacting laws for the country and casting votes upon important questions; we have been sent here by the suffrages of the people, and why cannot we enjoy the same benefits that are accorded to our white colleagues on this floor? (Donaldson)
By 1874, the KKK had been countered by federal authority, but new groups arose that also perpetrated acts of violence to upend the political power of blacks as well as white carpetbaggers and “scalawags”. These included the White League and the Red Shirts, which became such a threat that he purchased a “summer home” in Windsor, Connecticut, where he moved his family for their protection. He maintained an official residence in South Carolina as legally required.
Although reelected in a difficult contest in 1876 against Democrat John S. Richardson, the political environment in the state was declining for blacks. Republican presidential candidate Rutherford B. Hayes only won the state by a mere 889 votes that year. His victory was secured by agreeing to end Reconstruction, and the results of the next presidential election speak greatly to how things changed in South Carolina: Democrat Winfield Scott Hancock won the state by 32 points. The numbers would only worsen for Republicans in South Carolina as less and less blacks were voting due to absurdly restrictive voting laws targeted at them, violence, intimidation, and fraud. By 1900, the Republican vote for president dwindled down to 7%. Republican percentages would remain in single digits until Eisenhower almost won the state in 1952, thanks both to Truman’s embrace of civil rights and to the institution of the secret ballot, and the state would again vote Republican for president in 1964. In 1878, with Reconstruction over and increased voter intimidation, violence, and fraud occurring, Rainey was defeated for reelection with Democrat John S. Richardson winning with 62% of the vote, despite the district being majority black in population. He served in a post in the U.S. Treasury for a short time and then he turned to business pursuits, retiring in 1886. Sadly, Rainey didn’t get to enjoy retirement for long. Malaria was a horrible reality in the South until rural electrification, and his brush with it compromised his health so badly that he died months later on August 2, 1887.
P.S.: Some may be understandably skeptical about my assertions of Joseph Rainey as a conservative, thus in the references I have provided links to votes I have cited as evidence. The usage of the word “conservative” for Reconstruction Era politics is usually employed to mean policies that aim for a return as much as possible to the antebellum South.
Donaldson, B.J. (2021, January). Meet Joseph Rainey, the First Black Congressman. Smithsonian Magazine.
Precedent for Keeping Powell Out. (1967, April 18). Rocky Mount Telegram.
Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, the First African American to Serve in the House. U.S. House of Representatives.
To Agree to a Report of Committee of Conference on H.J. Res. 109, Which Provides That Subsidiary Silver Coin and Fractional Currency Oustanding Shall Not Exceed $50,000,000; That Amount of Money Invested in Silver Bullion, Exclusive of Resulting Coin, Shall Not Exceed $200,000 [Limiting Silver Coinage]. Govtrack.
To Concur in Senate Amendment to H.R. 1093 Said Amendment Striking the Provision Permitting the Coinage of Silver Bullion at a U.S. Mint or Assay Office on Same Terms and Conditions as Coinage of Gold Bullion [Rainey votes for]. Govtrack.
To Introduce H.R. 2788, A bill to Authorize the Building of a Military and Postal Railway from Washington, D.C., to New York City [Rainey votes for]. Govtrack.
To Pass S. 617, A Bill to Fix the Amount of U.S. Notes and the Circulation of National Banks, and for Other Purposes [Rainey votes against]. Govtrack.
To Pass H.R. 1093 Over the Veto of the President. [Rainey votes to override Hayes’ veto of Bland-Allison] Govtrack.
To Pass S. 647. [Rainey votes to Incorporate the Texas Pacific Railroad Co.]. Govtrack.
To Suspend the Rules and Pass A H.Res. Providing That the Right of the Congress to Coin and Regulate Money Does Not Include the Authority to Issue Paper of Government as Money [Rainey votes for Anti-Greenback Resolution]. Govtrack.
To Suspend the Rules and Pass H.R. 3923, Providing for the Coining of the Standard Silver Dollar of the U.S. and for Restoring its Legal-Tender Character. [Rainey votes against restoring bimetallism]. Govtrack.
To Table H.R. 5429, a Bill Authorizing and Requiring the United States Treasurer to Receive U.S. Coins in Exchange for U.S. Notes [Rainey votes to table]. Govtrack.
To Table S.J. Res. 11. (Extending Time for Wisconsin Railroad to be Completed) Govtrack.