Saturday, December 17, 2005

A Lil' Black History...

Black folks in politics have come along way in this country, but some are probably wondering:

Who was the first Black congressperson in America?

Joseph Hayne Rainey.

While I read this off a conservative website (No, I'm not "changin' my colors" and I'm not endorsing the website at all.), it does tell the tale of the first Black in Congress.

Mostly because the first Blacks in office were Republicans (Because of Black folks loyalty to Abe Lincoln. This has changed over the years, as I'm sure y'all already know.).

Read on for the entire article...


The First Black Congressman in the House

by Winkfield F. Twyman, Jr.12 December 2005

On December 12, 1870, Joseph Hayne Rainey took an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America.

December 12 is a day for celebration. On this day in 1870, Joseph Hayne Rainey took an oath of office to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States of America. The eyes of a nation were upon this former slave, the son of a South Carolina barber. When Rainey completed his oath, history was made and the U.S. House of Representatives moved a step closer to the dream that all men are created equal.

Who was Joseph Hayne Rainey?

Born on June 21, 1832, Rainey was born into a harsh world of little hope. Over 90% of blacks were slaves. Those African-Americans who were not slaves had poor prospects. If they tried to learn how to read, they were in violation of state law. Many occupations like medicine, law and public office were off-limits. Consigned to the economic margins of society, a number of free blacks left South Carolina for greater freedoms up North, in Canada, or out West. Those free blacks that remained disturbed the racial order at their own peril.

Within this oppressive system grew the seeds of uplift. Rainey’s father, Edward Rainey, was a slave. But he was also blessed with a trade. He could cut hair. And he had ambition. He wanted freedom for himself, and his family. Edward did what all later-day immigrants would recognize and respect. He created a plan. He would save his money from his earnings as a slave until he had saved enough to purchase the freedom of his family.

History does not record the reaction of Edward’s slave master. But the master must have liked the grit that he saw in Edward’s enterprise. From sunup to sundown, Edward worked and worked cutting hair. Finally, the day arrived when Edward had saved up enough money. The master kept his word and the Raineys were now free.

Freedom did not guarantee security, especially for a black family in the antebellum South. Edward had succeeded once, however, and would not be deterred. He opened up a barbershop, continued to cut hair, and saved his money. With his earnings, he purchased a house which stands today in Georgetown, South Carolina. He taught his son, Joseph, the barbering trade so that he too could provide for himself as an adult. In time, Edward became the wealthiest African-American in Georgetown, an achievement that inspired his son to take control of his own destiny in life.

The family moved to Charleston where Joseph worked as a barber in the Mill House. The Mill House operates as a hotel to this day. One can walk the halls and feel the weight of Southern history all about you, whether it be the portraits of plantations or confederate soldiers in their gray uniforms. The past hangs heavy in the air at the Mill House.

When the Civil War began, the Confederate government faced an interesting conundrum -- what to do with its free blacks? Neither citizen nor slave, these men and women of color occupied a precarious place in the rebel mind. History tells us that the ranks of free southern blacks were split during the Civil War, a hard truth to accept in our modern time. Some free blacks cast their lot with the north. They hoped for emancipation and, in some cases, volunteered for the Union Army. Other free blacks had grown so accustomed to economic relations with white benefactors that they supported the war effort and, in some rare cases, volunteered their sons to fight for the rebel cause.

The Confederacy drafted Joseph Rainey to work on fortifications. He resisted. Concluding that his best interests were not served by digging ditches for rebels, Joseph fled in the dead of night on a schooner for New York and then to his final destination in Bermuda. Bermuda was an interesting choice for exile because, while blacks had been free on the island since 1834, Bermuda was an English colony and there were confederate sympathizers in the population.
Together with his young wife Susan, the Raineys turned to enterprise. They set up house in a room of the Tucker House, the official residence of the Bermuda Governor. Rainey worked for a bit at a hotel before opening his barbershop in their Tucker House room. Rainey became so successful that the lane behind the room is now known as Barber’s Alley, a tribute to the high regard in which Bermudans held Rainey. He became active in civic affairs and discovered that he had a gift for leadership. Imagine the sight of a southern black barber weighing in on issues of the day with English citizens. It must have been a stirring scene during those war days. Rainey learned to read as well during this time. A kind customer, Dr. Mingo, taught Joseph Rainey lessons during haircuts. Rainey learned to read while standing on the job.

When the Civil War ended, Joseph and Susan had made a comfortable life for themselves in Bermuda. The couple might have ended their days happily in Bermuda were it not for the pleas of Edward. Edward wrote Joseph. He asked Joseph to return home. The father wrote about how it was a new day in South Carolina. The Confederacy was dead and slavery with it, thus opening up unrivaled opportunities for blacks. Edward could sense the potential in the air as he talked with his white customers and fellow blacks. He urged Joseph to return home. There was a political gold rush happening and now was the time to seize opportunity.

Joseph read the letters by candlelight with interest. Union troops and freed slaves seemed a world away from Joseph as he overheard British sailors strolling down Barber’s Alley. He had made a life for himself in Bermuda. He had good customers and kind friends of all races. Was he willing to give it all up for a promise of better things to come back home? Joseph shared the letters with Susan. She was not eager to return to the States. She had her own clothing business, well respected for its elegance and fashion. Her roots were in the French West Indies, so island life felt like home.

But the letters continued and Edward grew more insistent with each correspondence.
In a fateful decision for our nation’s history, Joseph Rainey decided that his father was right. Opportunity was on the horizon in South Carolina, more so than he might ever enjoy in Bermuda, particularly since he was not a citizen of either England or South Carolina. Black Americans would not gain their citizenship until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868.
Upon his return to Georgetown, he moved into his father’s house at 909 Prince Street and immediately plunged into the thick of things. Being the son of the town’s richest black man must have helped his name recognition. And he could read, an uncommon ability for a black man in 1865. Fewer then 3% of African-Americans could read.

He immediately began to earn a reputation as an honest man of integrity with conservative instincts. Voters elected him to the Constitutional Convention of 1868, where he helped to draft one of the most progressive and forward-looking state constitutions in history. He ran for the State Senate under the new Constitution and was promptly elected. His Senate colleagues recognized his talents for leadership and trustworthiness. As a result, he received appointment to the State Senate Finance Committee where committee members elevated Rainey to the chairmanship. He had come a long way from Barber’s Alley.During this time of flux, new rules of racial status were being implemented and tested. When blacks became citizens in 1868, there was seemingly no bar to an African-American serving in the state militia. Rainey did so as a good citizen and rose to the rank of Brigadier General, only the third black Brigadier General in our nation’s history. Now that racial barriers were melting away, raw talent could rise to the surface in South Carolinian life.

When the U.S. House of Representatives declared the seat of Benjamin Whittemore vacant in 1870, Rainey was a natural replacement. He had deep family roots in Georgetown. As an African-American, he symbolized new citizenship for black people. He had proven leadership experience at the state level, both in civilian and military life. And he could read.
His election to Congress was at once foreseeable and historic.

Upon taking his seat in Congress, Rainey demanded treatment equal to that of his peers. A very proper man who never forgot his time in an English colony, Rainey expected decorum and civility from whites. During debate on the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871, he took to task high-minded whites who condoned terrorism against Republicans, both white and black. Rainey did not claim to be a constitutional lawyer. Rather, he spoke with blunt conviction about constitutional values:
Tell me nothing of a constitution which fails to shelter beneath its rightful power the people of a country.-- Congressional Globe, 42d Congress, 1st Session, 394-95.
Rainey had been a congressman for two months.

While a member of Congress, he insisted upon equal treatment in streetcars and other public accommodations. He exposed the segregation that he saw with his own eyes in Richmond, Virginia streetcars. On one other occasion, he was forcibly ejected from a streetcar because of race. He filed a lawsuit to challenge the action but eventually was prevailed upon to withdrew the suit. His private legal actions proceeded those of Homer Plessy (Plessy v. Ferguson) by over twenty years.

Rainey was not immune from the daily humiliations of prejudice, even as a congressman. While at the Willard Hotel, a popular watering hole for politicians in Washington, a waiter charged Rainey 50 cents for a beer. Rainey noticed that the waiter had charged white patrons 5 cents for the same beverage. “Am I charged 50 cents because of my race?” Rainey demanded to know. “Yes,” the waiter replied, without missing a beat.

On another occasion, Rainey observed that the City of Richmond had shown no regard for deceased African-Americans and little for the living. Sometime in 1872 or 1873, Rainey was taken to the outskirts of the city where there was a slave burial ground. To Rainey’s astonishment, he found the graveyard cut through for the purpose of opening a street. The city carts hauled away the dust of the dead slaves and strewed the dust about the streets to fill up mud holes. Rainey was outraged! And he used the incident against southern apologists on the floor of the House.

Rainey grew in recognition as the 1870s wore on. As the most senior black member of Congress, he played an important leadership role on the Freedmen’s Affairs, Indian Affairs, Invalid Pensions, and Select Celebration of Proposed Census of 1875 Committees. He became involved as an incorporator and stockholder in various railroad companies and other enterprises, including a private school for blacks. His career achieved another milestone in March 1874, when he presided over the House as Speaker pro tempore, the first black to do so.
The tension between Rainey’s aspirations for equality and white prejudice crested in debate over the 1875 Civil Rights Act. Opposition to the Act came primarily from white southerners. Mindful that he was not a lawyer, Rainey would always return to basic notions of fairness and decency. When a member of Congress argued that men of quality like Frederick Douglas did not need “special protections” under the Bill, Rainey shot back:
I would like to ask the gentleman just one question before he sits down. Did the talent and good conduct of Fred. Douglas enable him to sit at the same table on the Potomac boat with his fellow-members of the San Domingo commission?-- Representative Joseph H. Rainey, responding on February 4, 1875, to an argument that the Bill conferred “special protections” that men of quality, like Frederick Douglass, did not need.

Another law-trained congressman from Kentucky lectured that the Civil Rights Bill was unconstitutional under the reasoning of The Slaughter-House Cases and pernicious in that it gave “large numbers of colored persons” the opportunity “to demand their rights in the most offensive form.” Rainey cut through the legalese and framed the question in terms of humanity:
I am not a lawyer, and consequently I cannot take a legal view of this matter, or perhaps I cannot view it through the same optics that he does. I view it in the light of the Constitution -- in the light of the amendments that have been made to that Constitution; I view it in the light of humanity….They (southern white congressmen) have a feeling against the Negro in this country that I suppose will never die out. They have an antipathy against that race of people, because of their loyalty to this Government, and because at the very time when they were needed to show manhood and valor they came forward in defense of the flag of the country and assisted in crushing out the rebellion. They, sir, would not give to the colored man the right to vote or the right to enjoy any of those immunities which are enjoyed by other citizens, if it had a tendency to make him feel his manhood and elevate him above the ordinary way of life. So long as he makes himself content with ordinary gifts, why all is well; but when he aspires to be a man, when he seeks to have the rights accorded him that other citizens of the country enjoy, then he is asking too much, and such gentleman as the gentleman from Kentucky are not willing to grant it.-- Representative Joseph H. Rainey speech, December 19, 1873.

As the U.S. Army withdrew from the South in the 1870s and Northern white support for civil rights waned, black men were increasingly kept from the polls. In 1876, South Carolina was one of three remaining states that still had federal troops present, and that had not been taken over by white supremacists. Some Democrats urged each white Democrat to prevent at least one black man from voting through intimidation, bribery, or other means. Tensions came to a boil in Hamburg, South Carolina on July 4, 1876. Two white farmers ordered a black militia group to disperse so that the whites could pass. The black militia group did disperse but only after angry words were exchanged.

Insulted by this breach of racial protocol, one of the white farmers returned to Hamburg and demanded that the judge arrest the black militia captain. The captain railed against the judge for considering the demand. The captain was ordered to stand trial for contempt of court on July 8. Both black militia members and an armed group of whites converged on Hamburg. Fighting erupted and a race riot ensued. Five of the black militia members were captured and murdered in cold blood. The whites destroyed the black homes in Hamburg. The result was a strengthened white supremacist wing of the Democratic Party that swept the fall 1876 elections. The whites indicted for murder were never brought to justice. Democratic officials dropped the case.The Democratic sweep of the statehouse and the removal of federal troops from South Carolina spelled the end of Rainey’s congressional career. While Rainey won the 1876 election, white supremacists came at him with a full-fledged campaign of intimidation and terrorism in the 1878 election. Rainey lost his seat to a white Democrat.

During the brave days of debate on the 1875 Civil Rights Act, Rainey had predicted that South Carolina blacks would not be “redeemed” as had happened in Virginia, North Carolina, and Georgia.

Rainey said:
We do not intend to be driven to the frontier as you have driven the Indian. Our purpose is to remain in your midst as an integral part of the body politic. We are training our children to take our places when we are gone.-- Joseph H. Rainey, February 3, 1875
When Rainey gave his farewell speech on March 3, 1879, he lamented the passing of Reconstruction and whether “the savings of a few thousand or hundreds of thousands of dollars (could) compensate for the loss of the political heritage of American citizens?”

Rainey never recovered from the political loss. The House leadership promised Rainey a job as Clerk of the House. When he sought the position, however, the leadership broke its promise. Rainey found work as an internal revenue agent. After two years, he tried his hand at a brokerage business and failed. He returned to Georgetown, a broken man. He attempted to run a mill and became embittered, urging fellow blacks to leave the South. Susan began to sell hats to help make ends meet. His father died in 1883 and Joseph lost the will to carry on. He died penniless on August 2, 1887.
To this day, no one knows where he is buried.

Did mean-spirited men build a bank and parking lot over his grave? Suspicions have lingered in Georgetown that white supremacists had no regard for his resting place in the Baptist cemetery. Was a bank constructed over his remains. Rainey saw desecration of remains with his own eyes in the slave graveyard outside Richmond, Virginia. Did it happen to this great American in Georgetown, South Carolina? If Congress can honor Rainey’s memory with a portrait in the Capitol Building, it can certainly honor his remains with an inquiry into the circumstances surrounding his burial and possible disinterment.

Rainey’s spirit lived on in his descendants. During debate on the 1875 Civil Rights Bill, Rainey proclaimed that African-Americans were “training our children to take our places when we are gone.” His grandson and namesake, Joseph H. Rainey, III, would run for Congress in Philadelphia and almost win. Philadelphia leaders urged his great-granddaughter, Valerie Rainey, to run for Congress. If she had been successful, she would have been the first black congresswoman. His great-great-grandaughters, Schuyler Rainey and Ellyn Rainey, would work on Capitol Hill for Congressman Major R. Owens.


More on Black folks and Republicans later...


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