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 Clerk uses the certificates to determine a Member’s right to a congressional seat and thus compose the roll of Members for each Congress.
Rainey was born to enslaved parents in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina. His father, Edward, a barber, was permitted to work for wages and keep some of his earnings. By the early 1840s, Edward Rainey bought his family’s freedom. Joseph Rainey worked as a barber like his father until the Confederates conscripted him to work on fortifications in Charleston during the Civil War. In 1862, he escaped with his wife to Bermuda, where the Raineys ran successful businesses until the war ended. Rainey returned to South Carolina and became involved in the Republican Party. He won election to the state senate in 1868. When Representative Benjamin Whittemore resigned his seat in the House of Representatives in 1870, Rainey saw an opportunity to run for federal office, winning his seat by a significant majority.
During more than eight years in Congress, Rainey advocated for civil rights legislation, public education, and an active federal government to guarantee the rights of freed people in the South. Conducting his work as one of the few African-American Representatives during Reconstruction came with many challenges. Black Members were frequently subjected to discrimination on and off Capitol Hill. During a speech on the House Floor in 1874, Rainey opined, “We are here enacting laws for the country . . . why cannot we enjoy the same benefits that are accorded to our white colleagues on the floor?”