Holt, Thomas. "Rainey, Joseph Hayne." In Dictionary of American Negro Biography, edited by Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton and Co., 1982.
Born enslaved, Joseph Rainey was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first to preside over the House, and the longest-serving Black lawmaker in Congress during Reconstruction. Like many Representatives of the era, Rainey introduced few bills, but he was one of the House’s most able orators and labored tirelessly in committee. During his more than eight years in the House, Rainey worked to pass civil rights legislation, fund public schools, and guarantee equal protection under the law. Throughout, he sought to use his position to advocate for the concerns of African Americans on the House Floor. “I can only raise my voice,” Rainey said in 1877, “and I would do it if it were the last time I ever did it, in defense of my rights and in the interests of my oppressed people.”1
Joseph Hayne Rainey was born on June 21, 1832, in Georgetown, South Carolina, a seaside town surrounded by low country rice plantations. Much of his early life is difficult to document. His parents were enslaved, but his father, Edward L. Rainey, was permitted to work as a barber and keep a portion of his earnings. He used that money to buy his family’s freedom in the early 1840s. South Carolina barred African Americans from attending school and Joseph Rainey never received a formal education. Rainey learned his father’s trade and by the 1850s worked as a barber at the exclusive Mills House hotel in Charleston.2 In 1859 Rainey traveled to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania, where he married Susan Cooper, who was originally from South Carolina. The Raineys returned to Charleston and later had three children: Joseph, Herbert, and Olive.3
When the Civil War began in 1861, the Confederate Army forced Rainey to construct defenses for the city of Charleston. He also worked as a ship’s steward aboard a Confederate blockade runner which clandestinely carried goods through the Union Navy’s maritime cordon of the South. In 1862, Rainey and his wife escaped to Bermuda, a self-governed British colony in the Atlantic that had abolished slavery in 1834. In Bermuda, the Raineys took advantage of the island’s economy which had thrived from the lucrative blockade-running business. The Raineys lived in the towns of St. George’s and Hamilton where Joseph set up a successful barbershop and Susan Rainey opened a dress store.4
The Raineys returned to the United States in 1866 following the end of the Civil War, settling first in Charleston before moving to Georgetown the following year.5 Rainey helped found the state Republican Party and represented Georgetown on the party’s central committee.6 In 1868 he was a delegate to the state constitutional convention and that year won election to the state senate where he chaired the senate finance committee.7
In February 1870, Representative Benjamin F. Whittemore resigned his northeastern South Carolina seat, having been accused of selling appointments to U.S. military academies.8 The Republican Party nominated Rainey for the remainder of the 41st Congress (1869–1871) and for a full term in the 42nd Congress (1871–1873). On October 19, 1870, Rainey won the full term, topping Democrat C. W. Dudley with 63 percent of the vote. On November 8, he defeated Dudley once again, garnering more than 86 percent of the vote in a special election to fill the seat for the remainder of the 41st Congress.9
Joseph Rainey was sworn in on December 12, 1870—first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. During his career on Capitol Hill, Rainey served on a range of committees and developed a firm grasp of the institutional workings of the House. Rainey’s committee appointments included the Freedmen’s Affairs Committee, the Indian Affairs Committee, and the Invalid Pensions Committee, the last of which considered pensions and federal benefits for wounded veterans. He also served on the Select Committee on the Centennial Celebration and the Select Committee on the Freedmen’s Bank during the 44th Congress (1875–1877). In the 45th Congress (1877–1879), Rainey served with distinction on the Joint Committee on Enrolled Bills, where he worked with House clerks and his counterparts from the Senate to ensure that the bills which passed between chambers were accurate.10 On April 29, 1874, Rainey also became the first African American to preside over the House of Representatives from the Speaker’s chair when he oversaw debate on an appropriations bill providing for the management of Native-American reservations.11
During Reconstruction, African-American lawmakers won election to local, state, and federal offices throughout the South. And over the course of his career on Capitol Hill, Rainey served with 13 Black Members, including five from South Carolina. They were all Republicans. Together, they formed the nucleus of Black political power in the South before the end of Reconstruction in 1877. When Democrats regained control in the former Confederacy in the late 1870s they began eviscerating the civil, political, and economic rights of African Americans and destroyed the Republican Party across the region.
On the House Floor, Rainey relished the opportunity for spirited debate. On April 1, 1871, Rainey delivered his first major speech in Congress, calling for the passage of the Ku Klux Klan Act. As state and local governments in the South either ignored or proved incapable of preventing white vigilante violence against African Americans, Rainey called on the federal government to intervene to combat the Klan and other terror organizations.12 The act expanded the reach of federal law enforcement in the South, giving the President the power to use federal troops to suppress the violence and empowered federal district attorneys to aggressively prosecute the Klan.13
While Democratic opponents argued the bill was unconstitutional, Rainey emphasized the federal government’s responsibility to protect individual rights. The Constitution, Rainey said, was designed to provide “protection to the humblest citizen, without regard to rank, creed, or color.”14 For Rainey, it was paramount that the federal government act, adding, “Tell me nothing of a constitution which fails to shelter beneath its rightful power the people of a country!”15
The Ku Klux Klan Act was signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant on April 20, 1871.16 Several months later, Grant used the powers authorized by the legislation to decisively damage the Klan.17 Even as Rainey received death threats from the Klan, he continued to defend the legislation as Democrats tried to eliminate funding for the law’s enforcement.18 In March of 1872, Rainey successfully argued for new federal appropriations to strengthen the law in the South.19
Alongside the fundamental protection afforded by the Klan Act, Rainey worked to pass comprehensive civil rights legislation to guarantee both legal equality and the promises of freedom for the four million formerly enslaved people in the South. In 1870 Radical Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts proposed a civil rights bill to outlaw racial discrimination in juries, schools, transportation, and public accommodations.20 Rainey and his Black colleagues spoke on the House Floor in favor of the bill, describing their personal experience with discrimination both in Washington and elsewhere. Rainey declared they were “determined to fight” to end discrimination and added that the Constitution guaranteed equal rights to all citizens.21 Rainey described his experiences riding segregated trains and streetcars but made his most ardent plea for equal access to education. Three years earlier, he had supported an unsuccessful effort to establish a national system of public schools funded with proceeds raised through the sale of public lands.22 In 1875 Rainey again called on legislators to embrace what he called “mixed schools” as a means to “annihilate” prejudice.23 Though the civil rights bill was signed into law March 3, 1875, provisions related to education were removed and the Supreme Court later declared key portions of the law unconstitutional.24
Throughout his career, Rainey sought to bolster legal protections for what he called “human rights.”25 Rainey’s expansive vision of human rights included not only civil and political rights, but economic rights for working people, immigrants, formerly enslaved people, and others. He supported the sovereignty of Native-American tribes and called on the United States government to respect existing treaties.26 He praised immigrants and opposed legislation that tried to limit the rights of Chinese laborers in the workplace.27 He also sought to protect the economic interests of African Americans, particularly in the South. Following the Civil War, for instance, the federal government had chartered the Freedmen’s Bank to help formerly enslaved families build wealth. But the bank failed in 1874. As one of many African Americans who had deposited money with the new financial institution, Rainey knew the long-term ramifications of the bank’s collapse. He successfully argued against a measure designed to limit oversight of the distribution of the bank’s remaining assets. Rainey also served on the House select committee charged with determining the cause of the bank’s failure and aided depositors in recovering their money—although largely without success.28
Though Rainey won re-election without opposition in 1872, his subsequent campaigns were more competitive. In 1874, Samuel Lee, an African American and a former speaker of the South Carolina house of representatives, challenged Rainey as an Independent Republican. Rainey won the election, taking 52 percent of the vote, but Lee demanded that the House Committee on Elections void some of Rainey’s votes due to a spelling error in Rainey’s name on some ballots.29 The committee upheld Rainey’s election in May 1876, with the whole House concurring a month later.30
The 1876 election cycle occurred during an extraordinarily violent year across the South. That year, South Carolina’s Democratic gubernatorial candidate Wade Hampton and his supporters, known as “Red Shirts,” orchestrated a campaign of violence and intimidation against Republican voters throughout the state.31 Similarly, in early July, following a white farmer’s dispute with the local Black militia in the town of Hamburg, South Carolina, near the border with Georgia, a white mob attacked the Black militia, killing six men, taking 25 prisoners, and destroying homes and property in the town’s African-American neighborhood.32 Rainey and his House colleague Robert Smalls of South Carolina denounced the assault on the House Floor on July 15, calling on the federal government to maintain troops in their state to prevent further violence against African Americans. Rainey called this incident “a cold-blooded atrocity” and warned that continued violence would undermine the fragile democracy in the South.33
Threats of violence also shaped Rainey’s re-election bid. In one instance, as Rainey traveled between campaign stops, he was warned of a group of armed Democrats outside Bennettsville, South Carolina. More than 50 Republicans joined him in anticipation of a violent confrontation. Rainey recalled that only the presence of federal troops prevented hostilities.34
In November 1876, Rainey defeated Democrat John S. Richardson for a seat in the 45th Congress (1877–1879), winning a tight race with 52 percent of the vote.35 Richardson accused Rainey and the Republican Party of voter intimidation, claimed victory, and traveled to Capitol Hill to dispute the election result. Rainey’s election had been certified by South Carolina’s existing Republican secretary of state, but Richardson had brought documents from Hampton’s victorious Democratic administration declaring him the victor. The House seated Rainey, but in May 1878 the Democratic majority on the Committee on Elections judged that the presence of federal troops in the state unduly influenced the outcome of the election. Although the committee declared the seat vacant, the full House failed to act on the committee report and Rainey kept his seat for the remainder of the term.36
In 1878 Richardson challenged Rainey again—this time bolstered by a concerted effort by Democrats to suppress Republican votes. Richardson defeated Rainey with nearly 62 percent of the vote.37 Rainey accused South Carolina Democrats of corruption and election fraud, but did not formally challenge the results in the House.38 In the remaining months of his House career, Rainey continued his committee work and introduced a bill to impose federal oversight of state voting practices.39
When Rainey left Congress, Republicans nominated him for the position of Clerk of the U.S. House of Representatives, but the Democratic majority in the 46th Congress (1879–1881) elected its candidate instead.40 In 1879 Rainey was appointed a special agent of the U.S. Treasury Department in South Carolina.41 And in 1881, he started a brokerage and banking business in Washington, but the firm folded five years later. Rainey managed a wood and coal business with a partner before returning to Georgetown, South Carolina, where he died on August 1, 1887.42
1Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 2nd sess. (28 February 1877): 2016.
2“Joseph Hayne Rainey,” Biographical Directory of the United States Congress, 1774–Present, http://bioguide.congress.gov/; “The Legislature,” 23 September 1868, Charleston Daily Courier: 4; “The Negro Representative—How He Looks, Etc.,” 14 December 1870, Cleveland Plain Dealer: 2.
3“Married,” 17 September 1859, Philadelphia Press: 2; 1900 United States Federal Census, Springfield Ward 8, Hampden County, Massachusetts, T623, Enumeration District 598, Page 18B, National Archives and Records Administration, https://www.ancestrylibrary.com/.
4Cyril Outerbridge Packwood, Detour–Bermuda, Destination–U.S. House of Representatives; The Life of Joseph Rainey (Hamilton, Bermuda: Baxter’s Limited, 1977): 10–12; “South Carolina Congressmen,” 18 November 1870, Cincinnati Daily Gazette: 3; “The Congressmen Elect in South Carolina,” 19 November 1870, Pittsburgh Post: 4. Barber’s Alley in St. George’s, Bermuda, is named for Rainey.
5Packwood, Detour–Bermuda, Destination–U.S. House of Representatives: 14–15.
6“The South Carolina Radical Convention,” 29 July 1867, Charleston Mercury: 1.
7Proceedings of the Constitutional Convention of South Carolina, vol. 1 (Charleston: Denny & Perry, 1868); “Negro Convention,” 16 January 1868, Charleston Mercury: 3; “South Carolina: General Canby’s Official Announcement of the Result,” 9 May 1868, Philadelphia Inquirer: 2.
8Congressional Globe, House, 41st Cong., 2nd sess. (24 February 1870): 1544; House Committee on Military Affairs, B. F. Whittemore, 41st Cong., 2nd sess., H. Rept. 29 (1871): 1–16.
9Michael J. Dubin, U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997 (Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., Publishers, 1998): 214.
10Special Senate Committee, In the Senate of the United States, 45th Cong., 3rd sess., S. Rept. 784 (1879): 53.
11“Our Washington Letter,” 8 May 1874, Jamestown Journal (NY): 4; Office of the Historian, U.S. House of Representatives, “Rediscovering Rainey’s Reign,” 27 April 2016, Whereas: Stories from the People’s House.
12Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1871): 393–395.
13Eric Foner, The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution (New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 2019): 117–120; Eric Foner, Reconstruction: America’s Unfinished Revolution, 1863–1877 (New York: Harper & Row, 1988): 454–455.
14Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1871): 395.
15Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1 April 1871): 395.
16An Act to enforce the Provisions of the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution of the United States, and for other Purposes, 17 Stat. 13 (1871).
17Foner, The Second Founding, 120; Foner, Reconstruction: 457–459.
18“More Loyal Men Threatened in South Carolina,” 18 May 1871, New York Times: 1.
19Congressional Globe, House, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (5 March 1872): 1439–1440.
20Foner, The Second Founding: 139.
21Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1875): 959.
22Congressional Globe, Appendix, 42nd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1872): 15–17.
23Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 February 1875): 960.
24Foner, The Second Founding: 143, 151.
25Congressional Record, Appendix, 45th Cong., 3rd sess. (3 March 1879): 267.
26Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (20 April 1876): 2669.
27Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 1st sess. (13 June 1874): 4967–4968.
28Congressional Record, Appendix, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (2 March 1875): 184–185; Congressional Record, House, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (3 March 1875): 2262–2263; House Select Committee on the Freedman’s Bank, Freedman’s Bank, 44th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 502 (1876); Reginald Washington, “The Freedman’s Savings and Trust Company and African American Genealogical Research,” Prologue 29:2 (1997): 170–181.
29Dubin, U.S. Congressional Elections, 1789–1997: 233; “Notes from the Capital,” 24 January 1876, New York Times: 1; Chester H. Rowell, A Historical and Legal Digest of All the Contested Election Cases (Washington, DC: Government Printing Office, 1901): 313.
30House Committee on Elections, Lee vs. Rainey, 44th Cong., 1st sess., H. Rept. 578 (1876); Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (23 June 1876): 4076.
31Fritz Hamer, “Wade Hampton: Conflicted Leader of the Conservative Democracy?,” in South Carolina and the Civil War and Reconstruction Eras, ed. Michael Brem Bonner and Fritz Hamer (Columbia, SC: University of South Carolina Press, 2016): 240–254.
32Foner, Reconstruction: 571–573.
33Congressional Record, House, 44th Cong., 1st sess. (15 July 1876): 4644–4645.
34Congressional Record, Appendix, 44th Cong., 2nd sess. (21 February 1877): 218.
35Dubin, U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: 240.
36Rowell, A Historical and Legal Digest of All the Contested Election Cases: 337.
37Dubin, U.S. Congressional Elections, 1788–1997: 247.
38Congressional Record, Appendix, 45th Cong., 3rd sess. (3 March 1879): 265.
39H.R. 5250, 45th Cong. (1878).
40“The Republican Caucus,” 18 March 1879, New York Times: 1.
41“Ex-Congressman Rainey Gets A Position,” 8 August 1879, New Orleans Daily Democrat: 1.
42“Joseph H. Rainey,” 13 August 1887, New York Freeman: 2; “The National Capital,” 29 December 1883, New York Globe: 1; “Rainey and Chew,” 21 November 1885, Washington Bee: 3.
"Joseph Hayne Rainey" in Black Americans in Congress, 1870-2007. Prepared under the direction of the Committee on House Administration by the Office of History & Preservation, U.S. House of Representatives. Washington: Government Printing Office, 2008.
Packwood, Cyril Outerbridge. Detour--Bermuda, Destination--U.S. House of Representatives: The Life of Joseph Hayne Rainey. Hamilton, Bermuda: Baxter's Limited, 1977.
Rainey, Joseph H. Deficiency Appropriation Bill. Washington: N.p., 1872.