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Joseph Hayne Rainey (June 21, 1832 – August 1, 1887) was the first African American person to serve in the United States House of Representatives and the second black person to serve in the United States Congress (U.S. Senator Hiram Revels was the first) and the first African American to be directly elected to Congress (Revels was appointed).

Rainey was born in Georgetown, South Carolina. His parents were both slaves, but his father, Edward, had a successful business as a barber, enabling him to purchase his family's freedom shortly after Joseph Rainey's birth. As an adult, Rainey followed his father by becoming a barber. In 1861, with the outbreak of the American Civil War, Rainey was drafted by the Confederate government to work on fortifications in Charleston, South Carolina, as well as to work as a laborer on blockade runner ships. In 1862, he and his wife were able to escape to Bermuda. They settled in the town of St. George, Bermuda, where Rainey worked as a barber, while his wife established herself as a successful dressmaker. In 1865, the couple moved to the town of Hamilton when an outbreak of yellow fever threatened St. George. Rainey worked at the Hamilton Hotel as a barber and a bartender, while becoming a respected member of the community.

File:Joseph Rainey.jpg

Portrait of Joseph Rainey, Collection of U.S. House of Representatives.

In 1866, following the war's end, Rainey returned to South Carolina. He quickly involved himself in politics, joining the executive committee of the state Republican Party. In 1868, he was a delegate to the convention which wrote the state's new constitution. In 1870, Rainey was elected to the State Senate of South Carolina. Later that year, he was elected to fill a vacancy in the Forty-first Congress of the United States as a Republican. This vacancy had been created when the previous incumbent, Benjamin F. Whittemore, was censured by the House for corruption and subsequently re-elected, after which the House refused to seat him. Rainey was seated December 12, 1870 and was re-elected to Congress four times; he served until March 3, 1879, which made him the longest-serving black Congressman prior to William L. Dawson in the 1950s.

In 1874 Rainey purchased a "Summer home" in Windsor, Connecticut. A representative of South Carolina, Rainey could not list Windsor as a primary residence, even though he did move his family there and was an active member of the First Church of Windsor. The "Joseph Rainey House", a c.1830 Greek Revival located at 299 Palisado Avenue (currently a private residence) is a featured stop on Connecticut's Freedom Trail.

During his term in Congress, Rainey focused on supporting legislation to protect the civil rights of Southern blacks. This pursuit eventually proved unsuccessful, with the end of Reconstruction effectively meaning that the black electorate lost all political power. In May of 1874, Rainey became the first African-American to preside over the House of Representatives as Speaker pro tempore. [1] In 1876, Rainey won re-election against Democratic candidate John Smythe Richardson. Richardson, however challenged the result as invalid on the grounds of intimidation by federal soldiers and black militias. Two years later, as the opponents of Reconstruction solidified their control over South Carolina politics, Rainey was defeated in a second contest with Richardson.

After leaving Congress, Joseph Rainey was appointed internal-revenue agent of South Carolina. He held this position for two years,after which he began a career in private commerce. Rainey retired in 1886 and died the following year in Georgetown, the city in which he was born.

See also[]

  • List of African American firsts


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