Joseph H. Rainey 1832–1887

Joseph H. Rainey 1832–1887

Joseph Rainey was sworn in on December 12, 1870—first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

Born enslaved, Joseph Rainey was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first to preside over the House, and the longest-serving Black lawmaker in Congress during Reconstruction. Like many Representatives of the era, Rainey introduced few bills, but he was one of the House’s most able orators and labored tirelessly in committee. During his more than eight years in the House, Rainey worked to pass civil rights legislation, fund public schools, and guarantee equal protection under the law. Throughout, he sought to use his position to advocate for the concerns of African Americans on the House Floor. “I can only raise my voice,” Rainey said in 1877, “and I would do it if it were the last time I ever did it, in defense of my rights and in the interests of my oppressed people.”1

Joseph Hayne Rainey was born on June 21, 1832, in Georgetown, South Carolina, a seaside town surrounded by low country rice plantations. Much of his early life is difficult to document. His parents were enslaved, but his father, Edward L. Rainey, was permitted to work as a barber and keep a portion of his earnings. He used that money to buy his family’s freedom in the early 1840s. South Carolina barred African Americans from attending school and Joseph Rainey never received a formal education. Rainey learned his father’s trade and by the 1850s worked as a barber at the exclusive Mills House hotel in Charleston.2 In 1859 Rainey traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he married Susan Cooper, who was originally from South Carolina. The Raineys returned to Charleston and later had three children: Joseph, Herbert, and Olive.3

When the Civil War began in 1861, the Confederate Army forced Rainey to construct defenses for the city of Charleston. He also worked as a ship’s steward aboard a Confederate blockade runner which clandestinely carried goods through the Union Navy’s maritime cordon of the South. In 1862, Rainey and his wife escaped to Bermuda, a self-governed British colony in the Atlantic that had abolished slavery in 1834. In Bermuda, the Raineys took advantage of the island’s economy which had thrived from the lucrative blockade-running business. The Raineys lived in the towns of St. George’s and Hamilton where Joseph set up a successful barbershop and Susan Rainey opened a dress store.4

This article appears in its entirety at the History, Art and Archives U.S House of Representatives website. It can be read here.

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