April 29, 1874
It’s unclear what prompted Representative Luke Poland of Vermont to leave the rostrum that day and yield the gavel, as the 43rd Congress (1873–1875) debated an Indian appropriations bill. But what is clear is that he set in motion a series of events that seemed the very culmination of the Civil War. When Poland stepped down, Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina—a former slave who had once been impressed into service by the Confederacy before escaping to Bermuda—mounted the Speaker’s rostrum, grasped the gavel, and set Capitol Hill abuzz.
“The hall of the House of Representatives during this session has been the scene of events of more than ordinary historical interest,” a New York Herald writer noted. Among that Congress’s milestones, the “honor of presiding over the House was accorded to a colored representative for the first time.” With the gavel in hand, Rainey directed debate while the House sat in the Committee of the Whole House, a parliamentary device used to streamline the consideration of legislation.
It was a momentous day for the House. But exactly which day wasn’t always entirely clear.
Ten years ago, the date of this event seemed a simple matter while writing Rainey’s profile in the Office of the Historian’s publication, Black Americans in Congress—after all, congressional firsts and milestones are frequently covered in great depth by journalists and later historians. But that wasn’t the case with Rainey. The journey to find exactly when he wielded the gavel offers twofold insight: first, how African-American Members of Congress were treated and remembered; and second, changes in the ways in which historians have used—and can use—newspaper evidence. In this case, newspapers were part of the problem and the solution.
Newspapers sympathetic to Reconstruction trumpeted Rainey’s ascent onto the rostrum in 1874. It was “an indication that the world moves,” noted the Baltimore Sun. The Herald called it a “scene which will make the history of the session memorable in American annals.” “The ice having been broken,” the writer for the Boston Globe crowed with optimism, African-American Representatives “will be called upon more frequently to occupy the chair . . . on other occasions when the Speaker vacates it.”
In the rush to cover the event, however, it appears the press muddled the details. One of the most quoted and reprinted articles in the New York Herald indicated Rainey was presiding over the House in the capacity of Speaker, which is far different from chairing the Committee of the Whole House. This interpretation was certainly grander and, out of naiveté about parliamentary procedure or a preference for hyperbole, others followed suit. Why is this routine procedural detail important? It eliminates the congressional historian’s best sources for House Floor happenings: the House Journal and the Congressional Record. According to the Record, Poland presided over this entire Indian appropriations debate, not Joseph Rainey. Yet, presiding officer changes when the House is in the Committee of the Whole are not necessarily recorded with the same attention as changes in speakers pro tempore. Had Rainey actually been doing the latter job, the mystery might have been resolved with the House’s official records.
Journalists compounded the confusion. Newspapers outside Washington frequently copied verbatim the reports of other newspapers or telegraph wires, often without clarifying the date of the original report. An April 30 morning edition of the Baltimore Sun claimed that Rainey sat “to-day”—as it was an early edition, one can infer that means (accurately) April 29. But the Charleston News and Courier ran the same telegraph story as the Sun on May 2, in a column dated May 1, in which they indicated that the event happened “yesterday” (April 30). A regular columnist for the D.C.-based, African-American weekly New National Era plainly claimed that Speaker James Blaine of Maine relinquished the chair to Rainey on “the 30th day of April, one thousand eight hundred and seventy-four.” The Era’s next edition—on May 14—infers the event happened April 25.
Historians who first told the story also didn’t help matters. Most secondary sources claim that Rainey took up the gavel in May 1874, a mistake likely born in Samuel Denny Smith’s The Negro in Congress: 1870–1901, one of the oldest—and decidedly unflattering—secondary sources examining black Congressmen in the late 19th century. Smith used an Alabama-based Mobile Register newspaper article from May 7, 1874, as evidence of Rainey’s notable act. The Register cited the same telegraph copy used by so many other newspapers, but Alabama’s distance from the Capitol delayed the news. And Smith—a Dunning School disciple who called Rainey’s presiding “a complimentary gesture” by the Republicans “to hold the Negroes in line”—likely had little motivation to confirm the exact date.
Modern technology created an opportunity to solve the mystery. A 19th-century newspaper database including more than 1,000 publications from the far geographic corners of late 1800s America, revealed a plethora of articles that, in combination, confirm the April 29 date. But there’s a catch . . . don’t bother searching for Joseph Rainey by name; it’s barely mentioned. Instead, try the words “colored” and “preside,” a clear indication that reporters considered his skin color to be the most important part of the story. This would probably not surprise Representative Rainey. The first and the longest-serving African-American Representative in the 19th century, he and the 21 African Americans who served in that era were accustomed to their role as the “15th Amendment in Flesh and Blood”: their presence symbolizing victory, but wielding little real institutional power.
Initially shrouded by the very sources that touted its importance, a simple event—Joseph Rainey’s picking up the gavel on April 29, 1874—provides insight into how history is rediscovered and remembered.
Sources: Congressional Record, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (28–30 April 1874); House Journal, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (28–30 April 1874); New York Herald, 30 April 1874; Baltimore Sun, 30 April 1874; Charleston News and Courier, 2 May 1874; New National Era, 7 May 1874, 14 May 1874; Boston Globe, 30 April 1874; Lowell Daily Citizen, 2 May 1874; Samuel Denny Smith, The Negro in Congress: 1870–1901 (Port Washington, N.Y.: Kennikat Press, Inc., 1940); Maurine Christopher, Black Americans in Congress (New York : T. Y. Crowell, 1976); Thomas Holt, “Rainey, Joseph Hayne,” Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton and Co., 1982); Cyril Outerbridge Packwood, Detour-Bermuda, Destination- U.S. House of Representatives; The Life of Joseph Rainey (Hamilton, Bermuda: Baxter’s Limited, 1977).Follow @USHouseHistory