Back to Results
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 into slavery on this date in Georgetown, South Carolina. Rainey’s father, a successful barber, purchased his family’s freedom in the early 1840s. Joseph Rainey followed in his father’s footsteps, maintaining a lucrative barbershop 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 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 balancing protection of the civil rights of his black constituents with the reconciliation of former Confederates. “We are earnest in our support of the Government,” he told colleagues on the House Floor. “We were earnest in the house of the nation’s perils and dangers; and now, in our country’s comparative peace and tranquility, we are earnest for our rights.” Defeated for re-election in 1878, Rainey returned to South Carolina where he died on August 1, 1887.

Related Highlight Subjects

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.

More >