Joseph H. Rainey (1832–1887)
From Reconstruction: Voices from America’s First Great Struggle for Racial Equality
One hundred and fifty years ago, Joseph H. Rainey became the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives—and he was elected twice in a three-week period to the same House seat.
When South Carolina congressman Benjamin F. Whittemore resigned his seat in disgrace in February 1870, after a scandal involving the sale of federal appointments, the Republicans nominated Rainey, a state senator, as their candidate for both the remainder of the term and for the next full term. On October 19, Rainey was elected to the full term with 63 percent of the vote against Democratic candidate Christopher W. Dudley. The two candidates faced off again on November 8 in a special election to fill the remainder of the current term, and Rainey’s victory was even more pronounced, with 86 percent of the vote. And so, on December 12, 1870, Rainey was sworn in to office three months ahead of the other freshman lawmakers of the 42nd Congress.
Rainey served a distinguished career, playing a notable role in debates over several key pieces of legislation, including his oft-cited speech in favor of the Ku Klux Klan Act, his advocacy for the adherence to American treaties with Native American tribes, and his opposition to limitations on the rights of Chinese immigrant laborers. In April 1874 he became the first African American to preside from the Speaker’s chair when the House debated an appropriations bill for federal management of Native reservations. He was one of the few Black incumbents who won their seats when Reconstruction ended in 1876, but he was swept from office two years later, as Jim Crow rule strengthened its grip over his district.
For our Story of the Week selection, then, we present Rainey’s last speech in Congress, in which he compared the free and fair election of 1876 with what President Rutherford Hayes called “violence of the most atrocious character” in 1878.