Reconstruction.docx - On Joseph Rainey became the first...

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On December 12, 1870, Joseph Rainey became the first African American to serve in the House of Representatives. Rainey had come a long way since he was born into slavery in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina. Growing up, he had a relatively privileged life compared to most slaves. His father, also a slave, was a barber, and as the law required, he kept part of what he earned. Rainey’s father eventually saved enough to buy freedom for his family. Rainey learned the barber’s skills from his father, but his trade was interrupted by the Civil War. The Confederate Army put him to work building fortifications, then crewing on a blockade runner (a ship that carried goods through the Union navy’s blockade from Bermuda, the closest British port). Rainey and his wife, Susan, managed to escape to Bermuda, where slavery was illegal. There he resumed his trade as a barber, and Susan opened a dress shop. They saved their earnings and returned to South Carolina at the end of the war with considerable savings. Library of Congress. Rainey soon chose to enter Republican politics. He held several party offices and appointed positions before winning elections to the state constitutional convention in 1868, to the state legislature in 1870, and later that same year to the U.S. House of Representatives. He was reelected to Congress in 1872 with no opposition. In 1874 and 1876, however, when he ran for reelection, he faced increasing, and increasingly violent, opposition—even threats to his life— but he won both times. By then, it took courage for a black man to run for office in many parts of the South. In some places, African American candidates were assassinated by those seeking to restore white supremacy. In most places, black candidates and voters faced intimidation or violence. Defeated in 1878 as Reconstruction was collapsing throughout the South, Rainey left office in early 1879. As a member of the House of Representatives, Rainey spoke forcefully in support of the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871; an excerpt appears in the Individual Voices . The act was intended to use federal authority to end the reign of terror against African Americans that was being carried out by the Klan and similar organizations. He also worked tirelessly for the passage of the Civil Rights bill, and was especially committed to desegregating public schools. In his speech to Congress in support of the bill, he vividly described the widespread segregation in many aspects of southern life. The bill passed in early 1875, but without provisions on school segregation or equality for segregated schools. Rainey’s efforts were not limited to matters affecting African Americans. He also supported legislation to grant amnesty to many former Confederates, seeing it as a balance to the Civil Rights Act, and he opposed efforts to restrict immigration from China.

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