The first black Congressman elected and seated in the House of Representatives was Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina. Born to slaves on June 31, 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina, he became a free man soon after his birth, thanks to his father, Edward Rainey, a successful and industrious barber who purchased his family’s freedom. He followed his father in the barber trade, until the beginning of the Civil War. Drafted as a laborer, he worked on fortifications and blockade runners. Escaping with his wife, they spent the rest of the war in Bermuda where Rainey resumed his trade as a barber. After the war he returned to South Carolina and became active in Republican party politics. Well read and intelligent, Rainey quickly made his mark. In 1868 he was elected as a delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention. In 1870 he won election to the state senate of South Carolina and then, winning a special election to fill a vacancy, he was elected to Congress and would serve there until March of 1879, making him the longest serving black congressman until William Dawson of Illinois eclipsed his record in the 1950s.
In Congress Rainey fought for civil rights for blacks and against the ultimately successful effort in the South to effectively disenfranchise blacks. He brought to his efforts a keen wit and eloquence as can be seen in this speech which he delivered after disparaging remarks were made about blacks in the South Carolina legislature by Democrat Representative Samuel Cox of New York in 1871:
The remarks made by the gentleman from New York in relation to the colored people of South Carolina escaped my hearing, as I was in the rear of the Hall when they were made, and I did not know that any utterance of that kind had emanated from him. I have always entertained a high regard for the gentleman from New York, because I believed him to be a useful member of the House. He is a gentleman of talent and of fine education, and I have thought heretofore that he would certainly be charitable toward a race of people who have never enjoyed the same advantages that he has. If the colored people of South Carolina had been accorded the same advantages—if they had had the same wealth and surroundings which the gentleman from New York has had, they would have shown to this nation that their color was no obstacle to their holding positions of trust, political or otherwise. Not having had these advantages, we cannot at the present time compete with the favored race of this country; but perhaps if our lives are spared, and if the gentleman from New York and other gentlemen on that side of the House will only accord to us right and justice, we shall show to them that we can be useful, intelligent citizens of this country. But if they will continue to proscribe us, if they will continue to cultivate prejudice against us; if they will continue to decry the Negro and crush him under foot, then you cannot expect the Negro to rise while the Democrats are trampling upon him and his rights. We ask you, sir, to do by the Negro as you ought to do by him in justice.
If the Democrats are such staunch friends of the Negro, why is it that when propositions are offered here and elsewhere looking to the elevation of the colored race, and the extension of right and justice to them, do the Democrats array themselves in unbroken phalanx, and vote against every such measure? You, gentlemen of that side of the House, have voted against all the recent amendments of the Constitution, and the laws enforcing the same. Why did you do it? I answer, because those measures had a tendency to give to the poor Negro his just rights, and because they proposed to knock off his shackles and give him freedom of speech, freedom of action, and the opportunity of education, that he might elevate himself to the dignity of manhood. Continue Reading