Editor’s Note: To mark Black History Month, our #TBT series is highlighting African-American politicians who broke barriers.
Joseph Rainey was born into slavery
He became the first African-American member of the House
The first African-American member of the US House of Representatives began his life in bondage. Joseph Rainey’s life took him from South Carolina to Washington, where he pushed for civil rights during Reconstruction.
Born in South Carolina in 1832, Rainey’s father was able to buy his family’s freedom by working as a barber. Rainey followed in his father’s footsteps before being forced to work for the Confederate Army in 1861. Rainey and his wife escaped to Caribbean, where they lived until the war ended.
Rainey’s political career began after his return to South Carolina, where the Republican became a county chairman before joining the state senate in 1870. Shortly after, Rainey was nominated to fill a vacant seat in the US House — he went on to win in his own right four times before retiring in 1879.
During his time in the House, Rainey made history fighting for other African-Americans. Despite threats of violence, Rainey backed the KKK Act, which gave the federal government better ability to push back against the Ku Klux Klan and other hate groups.
In 1873, Rainey went to the floor of the House to argue for civil rights:
“We ask them because we know it is proper, not because we want to deprive any other class of the rights and immunities they enjoy, because they are granted to us by the law of the land.”