Historical Highlights

Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, the First African American to Serve in the House

June 21, 1832
Representative Joseph Rainey of South Carolina, the First African American to Serve in the House Collection of the U.S. House of Representatives
About this object
The first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, Joseph Rainey, was born on this date in Georgetown, South Carolina. Rainey and his parents were enslaved, but his father was permitted to work as a barber and purchased his family’s freedom in the early 1840s. By the 1850s, Joseph Rainey was as a barber in Charleston, South Carolina. Having escaped to Bermuda during the Civil War, he returned to Charleston eager to dive into local Republican politics in 1866. Elected to the the 41st Congress (1869–1871) in a special election, Rainey took his seat as the first African American to serve in the House on December 12, 1870. Rainey spent his near decade-long congressional career as an advocate for civil rights, equal protection, and an active role for the federal government in the Reconstruction of the South. “We are earnest in our support of the Government,” he told colleagues on the House Floor. “We were earnest in the hour of the nation’s perils and dangers; and now, in our country’s comparative peace and tranquility, we are in earnest for our rights.” Defeated for re-election in 1878, Rainey was appointed to a position in the U.S. Treasury Department before starting a series of business in the 1880s. He died in Georgetown, South Carolina, on August 1, 1887.

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Fast Facts

Review a brief synopsis of Black Americans who have served in Congress. Joseph Rainey, William Dawson, and Gus Hawkins are a few of the African-American Members who made history in the House.

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