Rapier, James Thomas
Rapier, James Thomas
November 13, 1837
May 31, 1883
The son of a prosperous free barber in Florence, Alabama, congressman, farmer, and teacher James Rapier received much of his early formal education in Nashville, Tennessee, where his grandmother lived. Deciding that he needed further education, in 1856 Rapier traveled to Buxton, Canada West (now Ontario), a utopian community of African Americans where his father owned property, and began studying again. His proficiency made his tutors encourage him to go on for further study at a teacher's training school in Toronto. He stayed in the city for three years.
As the Civil War raged in the United States, Rapier felt a desire to return and aid in the reconstruction process. After returning to Tennessee in 1863 and participating in several black conventions in Nashville, he became disillusioned when the 1865–1866 Tennessee constitution denied suffrage to African Americans. Borrowing money to purchase some cotton land, he moved to Seven Mile Island in the Tennessee River in Alabama.
Rapier quickly rose in local and state estimation as an intelligent, educated, and reasonable African-American Republican. Despite heated debate about the role of African Americans in the Alabama Republican Party, he participated in party conventions and was one of the ninety-six delegates to draft the Alabama constitution. While he was part of a moderate group that favored less strict disfranchisement provisions and more strict equality statutes, the gains of Rapier and other black delegates were few. They defeated proposals to legalize segregation, but they were also unable to explicitly make discrimination illegal.
As a result of his visible campaigning, Rapier became a target of racist hate across the state. After Rapier and several associates were accused of burning a girl's school, they were hunted by a lynch mob. Rapier escaped, leaving behind his plantation and his belongings; three other men were hanged without legal proceedings. Shortly thereafter he was completely exonerated by a local magistrate.
Despite the amount of hostile opposition to blacks participating in the electoral process, Rapier, an eloquent orator, won a seat in Congress in 1872 by a plurality of almost 3,200 votes, including significant support from whites. He made several speeches during his first term on the need for Reconstruction to go further in guaranteeing civil rights, a federally controlled universal education system, and land redistribution to freedmen.
While the 1874 election initially ended with a Democratic victor, Rapier successfully challenged the result and was seated for his second consecutive term. Again, he spoke militantly about civil rights and segregation. In 1876, after gerrymandering by the Alabama legislature, only one predominantly black district remained in Alabama. Both Rapier and Congressman Jeremiah Haralson decided to run for the seat. When Haralson failed to secure the Republican nomination in 1875, he pledged to run as an independent candidate. The two black candidates split the vote and a white Democrat was elected.
Retiring from politics, Rapier settled down to run his farm. Appointed to the lucrative patronage post of Collector of Internal Revenue for the Second Alabama District (1877–1883), Rapier continued to have influence in Republican circles although he was never again a candidate for office. As a result of his lack of faith in Alabama's government, he became an ardent emigrationist, urging African Americans to move to Kansas or to the West to escape racism and discrimination. His health began to decline, and he died of tuberculosis in Alabama in 1883.
Christopher, Maurine. Black Americans in Congress. New York: Crowell, 1976.
McFarlin, Annjennette Sophie. Black Congressional Reconstruction Orators and their Orations, 1869–1879. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1976, pp. 257–279.
Schweninger, Loren. James T. Rapier and Reconstruction. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1978.
alana j. erickson (1996)