On December 12, 1870, Joseph Hayne Rainey took the oath of office and became the first African American sworn in to the U.S. House of Representatives. Born into slavery, Rainey was a pivotal figure in Congress after the Civil War, and the first of 14 African-American Representatives to serve during Reconstruction. Rainey spent more than eight years in the House, making him the longest-tenured Black Congressman until the 1950s. Rainey used his powers as a lawmaker to demand equal protection under the law and bolster and protect the civil and political rights of Black Americans. In the House, Rainey said he tended to the interests of two communities, one local and one national: those residents back home in his South Carolina district, as well as African Americans across the country.
For Black History Month, this Edition for Educators celebrates the life and career of Representative Joseph Hayne Rainey.
“We Are In Earnest For Our Rights”: Representative Joseph H. Rainey and the Struggle for Reconstruction
Joseph Rainey, who became the first African-American Representative in December 1870, navigated a unique path from slave to citizen to Representative. An ardent defender of Black civil and political rights, Rainey directly challenged the calcified traditions of American politics and society. Rainey’s pioneering career and legacy are explored in this PDF essay released to celebrate the 150th anniversary of his election to the U.S. House of Representatives.
Black Americans in Congress
This publication includes a full biographical profile of Representative Joseph H. Rainey alongside biographies of Rainey’s contemporaries and essays detailing the development of Black representation in Congress.
The Long Struggle for Representation: Oral Histories of African Americans in Congress
To commemorate the 150th anniversary of Joseph Rainey’s service in the House, the Office of the Historian has conducted oral histories with African-American Members, staff, and family. The interviews in this ongoing project provide firsthand accounts of the African-American experience on Capitol Hill since the 1950s—a period of dramatic change when Black Members were able to build seniority, shape legislation, and secure leadership positions.
Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, the First African American to Serve in the House
The first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, Joseph Rainey was born into slavery on June 21, 1832, in Georgetown, South Carolina. Both of Rainey’s parents were enslaved, but his father worked as a barber and eventually saved enough money to purchase his family’s freedom in the early 1840s. After being forced into service by the Confederacy during the early 1860s, Joseph Rainey and his wife escaped to Bermuda where they resided for the remainder of the Civil War until 1866 when they returned to South Carolina. In 1868 Joseph Rainey helped write the new state constitution and served the state senate. Elected to the 41st Congress (1869–1871) in a special election, Rainey took his seat in the U.S. House on December 12, 1870.
Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina Opposed the 1877 Electoral Commission
On January 25, 1877, Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina declared his opposition to legislation creating an Electoral Commission to determine the victor of the 1876 presidential election. The inconclusive presidential contest between Republican Rutherford B. Hayes of Ohio and Democrat Samuel J. Tilden of New York had produced a conundrum for Congress when three Southern states sent two competing sets of results to Congress following a campaign rife with violence, fraud, and voter suppression.
Joseph Hayne Rainey Portrait
The portrait of Joseph Rainey by artist Simmie Knox was unveiled in 2005. Rainey is pictured sitting in the House Connecting Corridor on the second floor of the Capitol, the half-finished Washington Monument visible through the window.
Engraved Illustration of African-American Congressmen
Portraits of five African Americans serving in Congress during Reconstruction—Joseph Rainey, John Lynch, James Rapier, Hiram Revels, and Blanche K. Bruce—were included in this engraved illustration from Speaker James Blaine’s two-volume publication Twenty Years of Congress from Lincoln to Garfield. Blaine served as Speaker during the first four years and three months of Rainey’s House career.
Rediscovering Rainey's Reign
It’s unclear what prompted Representative Luke Poland of Vermont to yield the gavel and leave the rostrum on April 29, 1874, as the 43rd Congress (1873–1875) debated an 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 and Reconstruction. When Poland stepped down, Joseph Hayne Rainey of South Carolina—a formerly enslaved laborer 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.
“By Any Fair Means”: Joseph H. Rainey’s Contested Elections
When Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina served in Congress from 1870 to 1879, white southerners used campaigns of violence and intimidation to undermine the political inroads Black Americans made during Reconstruction. The contested election was weaponized as a method of excluding African Americans from representation in Congress. The records of the Committee on Elections, part of the official records of the House of Representatives, document Rainey’s battle to prevail in two contested elections.
Joseph Rainey and Reconstruction’s Promise
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 three speeches on the House Floor—one in each of the three sessions of the 42nd Congress (1873–1875)—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.”
Read other blogs from the Rainey Sesquicentennial.
Joseph Rainey Election Certificate
Joseph Rainey, the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, was sworn in on December 12, 1870. This election certificate confirmed his 1874 election to the 44th Congress (1875–1877) for a third full term and is signed by members of the board of state canvassers for South Carolina. After every congressional election, each state certifies its delegation of U.S. Representatives-elect. The House Clerk uses the certificates to determine a Member-elect’s right to a congressional seat and thus compose the roll of Members for each Congress.
This is part of a series of blog posts for educators highlighting the resources available on History, Art & Archives of the U.S. House of Representatives. For lesson plans, fact sheets, glossaries, and other materials for the classroom, see the website's Education section.Follow @USHouseHistory