Born a slave in Georgetown, South Carolina, on June 21, 1832, Joseph Hayne Rainey was able with his father's help to attain his freedom. Rainey grew up to become a Reconstruction congressman during the forty-first, forty-second, forty-third, forty-fourth and forty-fifth Congresses. He was the first African American to be seated in the United States House of Representatives. Other African Americans were elected to Congress before Rainey, but the congressmen refused to recognize them.
Not too much is known about Rainey's youth. His father Edward, a barber by trade, was able to buy his own freedom and that of his wife Gracia and their children sometime in the mid-1840s. The family then moved to Charleston. By 1860, Edward worked at the elite Mills House Hotel and had become prosperous enough to own two slaves. Joseph Rainey went to Philadelphia in the late 1850s. There he married Susan and the two returned to South Carolina in 1859.
Rainey worked as a barber until 1862 when he was forced to work for the Confederate States of America building fortifications and serving as a steward on vessels called blockade-runners. The couple was able to escape from the Confederates on one of the ships that traveled between Georgetown and the island of Bermuda. In Bermuda, Rainey once again plied his trade as a barber in St. George and Hamilton. The Raineys stayed in Bermuda until the end of the Civil War. When Rainey returned, he soon was involved in Republican politics in South Carolina.
Enters Politics in South Carolina
For fourteen years, from 1865 to 1879, Rainey was active on many levels with both his community and the Republican party. He and his brother, Edward, attended the Colored People's Convention at the Zion Presbyterian Church, which focused on advancing the interests of African Americans. He served as the county chairman for Georgetown and was a member of the State Executive Committee from 1868 to 1876. From January 14 to March 18, 1868, he served as the Georgetown delegate to the South Carolina constitutional convention held in Charleston, along with a white delegate, Henry W. Webb. Rainey was a political conservative who sometimes sided with white politicians and favored a degree of leniency toward ex-Confederates. He regularly demonstrated compassion for the mistreated—especially the newly freed black population. As a representative to the South Carolina constitutional convention he supported amnesty for the Confederates and debt relief for those made destitute by the war. He opposed radical land reform and supported poll taxes if the proceeds were used for public education. Rainey served in the South Carolina state militia and was an agent of the State Land Commission. When he attended the state labor convention in 1869, he supported legislation to protect African American workers who were suffering at the hands of former masters who wanted to relegate them to near-slavery status. Once Rainey was elected to the state senate in 1870, he became chairman of the Finance Committee. He resigned soon after joining the state senate to fill a seat in the House of Representatives.
Rainey was elected to Congress from South Carolina's first congressional district to fill a vacancy caused when the House of Representatives declared B. Franklin Whittemore's seat vacant. Whittemore was guilty of selling West Point commissions. Rainey served from December 12, 1870, to March 3, 1879. Records relating to his tenure appear in both the Congressional Record and the Congressional Globe. He supported civil rights legislation, an anti-Ku Klux Klan act, and laws advocating Indian and Chinese rights.
In an April 1, 1871 speech relating to the necessity of the enforcement of the Fourteenth Amendment to the U. S. Constitution, Rainey stated that freed men and women in South Carolina were being subjected to enormous crimes that found "no parallel in the history of this Republic in her very darkest days," according to the Congressional Globe. He argued: "even now, after the great conflict between slavery and freedom, after the triumph achieved at such a cost, we can yet see the traces of the disastrous strife and the remains of disease in the body-politic of the South. In proof of this witness the frequent outrages perpetrated upon our loyal men. The prevailing spirit of the southerner is either to rule or to ruin. Voters must perforce succumb to their wishes or else risk life itself in the attempt to maintain the simple right of common manhood." Rainey was fighting a losing battle because by 1877, the end of Reconstruction, almost all attempts at U. S. government enforcement of rights for African Americans would be abandoned for many decades.
The Congressional Record for March 2, 1875 records the Honorable Joseph H. Rainey's protest about the mistreatment of former slaves by the disastrous Freedman's Savings and Trust Company which collapsed in 1874. He lambastes the leadership of the bank as having been determined to "deceive the inexperienced and credulous former bonds men and women." In spite of protests by Rainey and many others, nothing stopped the malpractices of the bank's administrators. Few depositors ever retrieved their hard-earned funds.
Life after Congress
After Rainey left Congress he was appointed as an Internal Revenue agent in South Carolina on May 22, 1879, and served until July 15, 1881. Rainey, a businessman before he was a politician, maintained an active interest in investments during his career. He held stock in the Greenville and Enterprise Railroads and tried to manage an unproductive banking and brokerage business in Washington, D.C. When his health failed he left Washington, D.C, and returned to Georgetown where he died on August 1, 1887. He was buried at the Baptist Cemetery.
- Born to enslaved parents in Georgetown, South Carolina on June 21
- Father buys his freedom
- Marries Susan (maiden name unknown) in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
- Returns to Georgetown; establishes barbershop
- Drafted by the Confederate Army to build fortifications and serve on board vessels
- Escapes with family to Bermuda
- Returns to Georgetown and becomes active with Republican party politics
- Serves as a delegate to the South Carolina Constitutional Convention but is asked to fill a vacancy in the U.S. Congress
- Elected to the South Carolina State Senate; becomes the first African American seated in the U.S. Congress
- Serves in the 41st through the 45th Congress as the representative of the first district of South Carolina
- Becomes an Internal Revenue Service agent for South Carolina
- Goes into private business
- Dies in Georgetown, South Carolina on August 1
Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. Baton Rouge, La.: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana, Ill.: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
――――――. "Joseph Hayne Rainey." Dictionary of American Negro Biography. Eds. Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston. New York: Norton: 1982.
Middleton, Stephen, ed. Black Congressmen during Reconstruction: A Documentary Sourcebook. Westport, Conn.: Praeger, 2002.
Work, Monroe N., Thomas S. Staples, H. A. Wallace, et al. "Some Negro Members of Reconstruction Conventions and Legislatures of Congress." Journal of Negro History 5 (January 1920): 63-119.
Congressional Globe. 42nd Cong., 1st sess. (1871): 393-395.
Congressional Record, House of Representatives, 43rd Cong., 2nd sess. (1875): 184.
Debra Newman Ham