On December 12, 1870, newspapers across the nation heralded the swearing in of Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina as the first African-American Member of the U.S. House of Representatives. In Washington, DC, the New National Era, owned by the abolitionist and civil rights activist Frederick Douglass, printed a bold headline to announce the seating of “The First Colored Representative.” The Cleveland Plain Dealer reported that Rainey approached the rostrum, raised his hand to take the oath of office, and “put his heels together like a soldier” as the “whole House looked on in amazement.” The Washington correspondent of the New-York Tribune added that as Rainey spoke, “the hum and buzz of voices ceased on the floor, and almost every member turned with an air akin to respect, toward the first representative on that floor of the newly-enfranchised race.” As he took his seat, Rainey was “warmly congratulated” by more than a dozen of his new colleagues.
Ten months earlier, Hiram Revels of Mississippi had joined the U.S. Senate, becoming the first African-American Member of Congress. Revels, however, was appointed by the state legislature, as were all U.S. Senators before 1913. Rainey, on the other hand, was the first African American directly elected to Congress by his constituents. In the fall of 1870, South Carolina’s First District chose Rainey to fill a vacancy for the final two and a half months of the 41st Congress (1869–1871) and for the full term in the 42nd Congress (1871–1873).
The nation had eagerly anticipated Rainey’s arrival on Capitol Hill, and the press went to great lengths to provide detailed and often racist descriptions of his appearance, heritage, physical features, and legislative abilities. The press corps also compiled biographical information on the new Congressman. Readers learned that Rainey had been born enslaved in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina; that he had been denied a formal education by law; and that his enslaved parents had purchased their family’s freedom. Rainey had worked as a barber at the well-known Mills House hotel in Charleston, but when the Civil War began Confederate authorities forced him to construct fortifications for the city. Reporters also noted his time as a steward aboard a blockade runner that sailed between Charleston and Nassau in the Bahamas, as well as his daring escape to Bermuda, where he and his wife remained for the duration of the war. In 1866 he returned to South Carolina and was elected to the state senate two years later.
While reporters eagerly documented Rainey’s life story and his first day in the House, they remained largely silent on Rainey’s legislative ambitions as the first African-American Member of the House. Rainey himself said little about his goals at first. On the House Floor, he silently observed proceedings, voted regularly, and submitted petitions and memorials as the 41st Congress wound to a close. But when the 42nd Congress opened, Rainey no longer sat to side, and instead directly shaped debate on the most pressing questions of the day.
The five years before Rainey’s election had witnessed the end of the Civil War, the demise of slavery, the beginning of Reconstruction, and the impeachment of President Andrew Johnson. Radical Republicans sought to harness the power of the federal government to transform the social, political, and economic foundation of the South. They defended the rights of the millions of formerly enslaved men and women—known as freed people—through constitutional amendments, civil rights legislation, and the power of the U.S. military. But white southerners and their northern allies in the Democratic Party were increasingly committed to resisting this process by any means necessary, including violence, voter intimidation, and constitutional arguments over the rights of states in the federal system. Starting with the 1870 elections, a resurgent Democratic Party began their decade-long campaign to claw back control of both southern state governments and the U.S. House, where they gained 37 seats. For Rainey, it was imperative that the Republican Party continue to use the power of the federal government to stop the oppression and make the South more equal and democratic.
In three speeches on the House Floor—one in each of the three sessions of the 42nd Congress—Rainey championed equal protection under the law, universal public education, and new civil rights legislation. At the same time, he set a new standard for Representatives willing to stand in defense of principles that transcended the boundaries of their congressional districts. Rainey not only represented his South Carolina district. He also represented, he said, “the outraged and oppressed negro population of this country, those I may strictly call my constituency.”
By 1871, the nation was at a crossroads concerning Reconstruction. Despite the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, which defined citizenship and affirmed due process and equal protection of the law, white southerners continued to violently undermine the civil and political rights of African Americans throughout the region. Since 1866, congressional committees had investigated and documented vigilante violence in the former Confederacy. From 1869 to 1871, a rising tide of racial violence orchestrated by the Ku Klux Klan threatened Republican-led Reconstruction governments in southern states, targeting politically active African Americans and their white allies for retribution. Witnesses submitted to Congress graphic testimony of murders, beatings, and economic and political repression in Southern states. When the Republican-controlled U.S. House convened the 42nd Congress on March 4, 1871, President Ulysses S. Grant called on lawmakers to find legislative solutions to address the ongoing turmoil in the South.
Rainey was joined in the 42nd Congress by four new African-American Members of the House: Benjamin Turner of Alabama, Josiah Walls of Florida, and two of Rainey’s fellow South Carolinians, Robert De Large and Robert Elliott. Almost immediately the House opened debate on H.R. 320, which sought to make real the guarantees in the Fourteenth Amendment. What came to be known as the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871 was the third in a series of laws referred to as the Enforcement Acts which vastly expanded the reach of the President and federal officials to combat violence in the South.
As the House considered the bill on April 1, Representative Robert Elliott of South Carolina forcefully defended the measure, and offered examples of Klan atrocities in his district. But a few hours later, Representative James G. Blair of Missouri called the bill unconstitutional and argued that it would violate “those powers heretofore known as ‘State’s rights.’” For decades, arguments in support of “states’ rights” had enabled large parts of the country to uphold the system of slavery and create a separate and very unequal society.
Rainey immediately challenged Blair’s argument. Rainey emphasized the “enormity of the crimes” committed against African Americans and white Republicans in the South, including murder, property destruction, economic reprisals. Rainey also reminded the House that local courts and law enforcement had done little to stop it. This “disease in the body-politic of the South” led to a society where it was acceptable for people loyal to the Union to be “murdered for political opinion’s sake.” Such chaos demanded action, Rainey declared, adding, “I stand upon the broad plane of right.”
Taking aim at Blair’s remarks, Rainey said the Constitution should “insure protection to the humblest citizen, without regard to rank, creed, or color.” It was a “bulwark of freedom” protecting “inalienable rights” for all against “foreign invasion and domestic violence”—an essential function of any government. “Tell me nothing of a constitution which fails to shelter beneath its rightful power the people of a country!” Throughout its history, the United States had been “proudly proclaimed to the world the refuge, the safe asylum of the oppressed of all lands,” he said. If Congress refused to act in defense of the rights of all citizens, was “this grand boast of ours . . . a mere form of words, an utter fraud?”
With a majority in both chambers, Republicans in Congress passed the updated Enforcement Act, and President Grant signed the bill into law. For the first time, African-American Representatives in the House were able to advocate for significant legislation to protect the rights of African-American citizens.
In October 1871, Grant used the act to declare a “condition of lawlessness” in nine South Carolina counties. He suspended the writ of habeas corpus and sent federal troops to occupy the region. Many Klansmen fled the state as hundreds were arrested and several dozen brought to trial and sentenced to prison by Black-majority juries. Grant’s show of force decisively damaged the Klan and drastically reduced violence in the region in the early 1870s.
While the Ku Klux Klan Act offered a way to combat the most egregious offenses against the physical security of the freed people and their allies, Republicans also proposed legislation to improve the material well-being of all Americans. On January 15, 1872, Representative Legrand Winfield Perce of Mississippi introduced H.R. 1043, which promised to finance and sustain a national school system using the proceeds from the sale of public lands.
On February 3, 1872, Rainey addressed the House to urge passage of Perce’s education bill. Having been barred from schooling under slavery, education was an immediate priority for the freed people. Alongside funding from the Freedmen’s Bureau and northern aid societies, African-American communities in the South pooled their resources to build schools and hire teachers following the war. Rainey told his colleagues of “old gray-headed men, formerly slaves, learning the alphabet, and straining their blunted senses in quest of knowledge, and this, too, after the hard toils of the day.” Their children were similarly “striving to read,” Rainey observed. Having the federal government provide equitable public resources was a national investment which, Rainey said, would encourage “a higher standard of citizenship” and develop the “future lawmakers and rulers of our country.” “The great remedy,” Rainey concluded, “is free schools.” He cited population statistics to demonstrate that these facilities were “needed alike by all classes, both white and black.” “This mental midnight,” he argued, was “a national calamity, and not necessarily sectional.” Adequately funding public education could eliminate the “sectional feeling” that contributed to the Civil War and fueled Klan violence in the South.
Despite Rainey’s optimism, however, Perce’s bill never became law.
On March 3, 1873—the final day of the 42nd Congress—Representative Ephraim Acker of Pennsylvania complained that he had not been allowed to call up a “general amnesty” bill for a vote. Since the end of the Civil War, the federal government had suspended the political rights of many who had supported the Confederacy. By the early 1870s, however, Democrats in the North like Acker, as well as his Southern colleagues, called on the government to restore those rights and remove what they called “political disabilities” enabling former Confederates to vote and hold office once more. Even though the Amnesty Act of 1872 had provided relief for most who had participated in the rebellion, Acker declared that “no better act could have been passed” by the 42nd Congress than to remove the “political disabilities of all persons still laboring under them.”
Rainey rejected Acker’s claims. The prevailing injustice, Rainey said, was not that former Confederates could not vote; it was that Acker and his ilk refused to support new civil rights legislation even as four million formerly enslaved people suffered from “the prejudice and oppression that have for so long existed against them in this country.”
Since 1870, Republicans had been trying to pass a civil rights bill introduced by Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Sumner’s bill preserved equal access to public accommodations, transportation, schools, and churches while creating federal enforcement measures. Rainey reminded the House that Acker’s calls to help “a few men who had raised their traitorous hands against this Government” overlooked the very real plight of African Americans in the United States. Frustrated that Democrats rejected any bill “for the benefit of the class to which I belong, a class that have always been ready to stand up for the country and its rights, and for the rights of all,” Rainey wanted Congress to “be generous to all, not simply to a few” who had once tried to overthrow the Constitution.
Despite Rainey’s protestations, the House did not take up the civil rights bill before the session ended. It would take another two years—and Sumner’s death in March 1874—for the bill to become law, and even then provisions relating to integrated schools, churches, and cemeteries had been removed. In 1883 the Supreme Court ruled that key portions of the Civil Rights Act of 1875 were unconstitutional, severely limiting the role of the federal government in protecting civil rights for decades.
In November 1872 Rainey ran unopposed for re-election. It was the first of his three re-elections. Although his victories in 1874 and 1876 were contested by his opponents, Rainey held on to his seat through the end of the 45th Congress (1877–1879), becoming the longest-tenured Black Member of Congress until the 1950s.
Between his victory in 1872 and the opening of the 43rd Congress (1873–1875), Rainey traveled to the village of Tarriffville, Connecticut, where he was a featured speaker at a July 30 celebration of the end of slavery in the West Indies nearly 40 years earlier. A reporter from the Hartford Courant described his address to the mostly Black crowd of more than 700. Rainey promised that when he returned to Washington, he would “represent the interests of the colored men of the whole country; first the colored men, then somebody else’s interests.” He asked the Black men of the nation to “go to the ballot box in solid phalanx” and support only those candidates who will “hear this cry of ours for civil rights.” Promising to work with his African-American colleagues in the House to achieve their legislative goals—including equal protection under the law, public education, and civil rights legislation—Rainey said they were prepared to “go against the interests of every state whose representatives go against ours.” Rainey reminded the crowd that the very presence of more African-American lawmakers was an essential part of transforming American society and politics. Once ensconced in their “high office,” Rainey said, each African-American Member of Congress will “make the white man recognize his black face, and know he has met his equal.”
Sources: Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1871): 206–207, 389–395; Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (20 April 1871): 831–832; Congressional Globe, Appendix, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1872): 15–17; Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (13 May 1872): 3382–3383; Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 3rd sess. (3 March 1873): 2135; H.R. 1043, 42nd Cong. (1872); H.R. 2761, 42nd Cong. (1872); An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other Purposes, 17 Stat. 13 (1871); Civil Rights Act of 1875, 18 Stat. 335 (1875); Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States, Testimony Taken By the Joint Select Committee to Inquire into the Condition of Affairs in the Late Insurrectionary States: South Carolina, Volume I, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess., S. Rept. 41, pt. 3 (1872); Chicago Tribune, 10 December 1870; Cincinnati Daily Gazette, 18 November 1870; Cleveland Plain Dealer, 14 December 1870; Hartford Daily Courant, 31 July 1873; New National Era (Washington, DC), 22 December 1870; New York Times, 10 December 1873; New-York Tribune, 13 December 1870; Portland Daily Press (ME), 15 December 1870; Savannah Daily Advertiser (GA), 18 December 1870; The Weekly Alta (San Francisco, CA), 31 December 1870; Charles W. Calhoun, The Presidency of Ulysses S. Grant (Lawrence, KS: University Press of Kansas, 2017); Michael J. Dubin, United States Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson: McFarland and Company, 1998); Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988); Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (New York: W.W. Norton & Co.: 2019).Follow @USHouseHistory