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Historical Highlights

Representative James Rapier of Alabama

November 13, 1837
Representative James Rapier of Alabama Image courtesy of Moorland–Spingarn Research Center, Howard University Representative James Rapier of Alabama was one of a then-record seven black Members of the House in the 43rd Congress (1873–1875).
On this date, African-American Representative James Rapier of Alabama was born free in Florence, Alabama. Though privileged enough to attend a secret school for black children, Rapier also spent a great deal of time drinking and gambling on riverboats. His disappointed father sent him to an experimental fugitive slave community in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, in 1856. In 1864, a rehabilitated Rapier moved first to Tennessee and then to Alabama to become a successful cotton planter; his reputation for the fair treatment of his black tenant farmers demonstrated his lifelong defense of black laborers. Rapier’s popularity with both white and black residents in his community advanced his political career in his slightly white-majority southeastern Alabama district. After winning election as a Republican to the 43rd Congress (1873–1875), Rapier spent his term in Congress fighting for the 1875 Civil Rights Bill enforcing equality in public accommodations, transportation, and public schools. As opponents stripped the bill of most of its protective clauses, Rapier lamented on the House Floor, “I have no compromise to offer on this subject…. After all, this question resolves itself into this: either I am a man or I am not a man.” Widespread Ku Klux Klan violence and chaos during the 1874 election dashed Rapier’s attempt at re-election. After mounting an unsuccessful challenge in a neighboring district against fellow black Representative Jeremiah Haralson, Rapier held several patronage positions in Alabama before his death on May 31, 1883, of tuberculosis.

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