From Cotton to Congress: The Remarkable Rise and Careers of the First Black Congressmen

As a congressional intern with a passion for U.S. history and virtually unrestricted access to the entirety of the U.S. Capitol Building, I took every chance I could get to leave my office and explore. Unfortunate circumstances, both COVID-19 and the January 6th riot, left the great halls of Congress closed off to the public and largely empty. Whereas just a few years ago I stood clustered in the Capitol Rotunda with thousands of other tourists, I then stood there alone, able to appreciate the magnificence of the people’s house and the history that it embodies. The Capitol is not only a phenomenal monument to the genius of the system of limited government and individual liberties laid out in our Constitution, but it is also the host of a rich and ever-progressing history of American leaders overcoming the struggles of their times in order to bring the country closer to the ideals of liberty and justice for all that it was founded upon.

It was on one of my daily Capitol adventures that I came across a special exhibit dedicated to Joseph Rainey, the first Black member of the United States House of Representatives. It was the 150th anniversary of Congressman Rainey’s swearing-in ceremony, and I was astonished to see that the Congressman, a former slave, took office just five years after the conclusion of the Civil War in 1865. He was joined in Black congressional representation by Hiram Revels, the first Black member of the United States Senate, who ironically took over the seat of none other than Confederate President Jefferson Davis. The election of these inspiring two men at this time in history alone is amazing, but their records as passionate advocates of civil rights are even more impressive and deserve recognition and appreciation in our history books. 

The Upbringings of a Congressman

Joseph Rainey was born into slavery in Georgetown, South Carolina in 1832. His father, in addition to his slave work, was allowed to work as a barber and keep a portion of his income. After years of hard work, Rainey’s father saved up enough money to buy his own freedom, and then the freedom of his wife and two children. Rainey grew up as a free man working in his father’s barbershop and educating himself on works of classic literature.

Despite his legally acquired freedom, Rainey was still forced into service for the Confederacy upon the outbreak of the Civil War. He worked on a Bahamas-bound Confederate blockade runner ship, which evaded Union trade blockades in order to export cotton and import weapons and other supplies. In 1862, Rainey escaped his Confederate conscription by boldly boarding a trade ship headed towards Bermuda, a thriving British colony free of slavery. He and his wife stayed here until the end of the war.

The 13th Amendment to the Constitution put the final nail in the coffin of the institution of slavery, but the battle for equality and civil rights had only just begun. When Rainey returned to his home state of South Carolina, 400,000 newly freed men and women increased the free Black population to a point of becoming an accounted racial majority of 60% in the state and propelling African-Americans into positions of leadership in a time of reconstruction and Constitutional reform. 

Joseph Rainey’s first experience in public service came with his nomination to be a delegate to a statewide constitutional convention, a monumental task of reform to be taken up by all former Confederate states following the war. Following this, in April 1868, Rainey was elected to the South Carolina State Senate. One of the first matters of public policy faced by Rainey was the question of ratifying the 14th Amendment, of which he was a staunch supporter, as it aimed to secure the citizenship of African-Americans and extend the guarantees of due process and equal protection under the law. After fiercely defending and advocating for the amendment, Rainey successfully helped in achieving its ratification.

Hiram Revels, unlike Joseph Rainey, was born a free man in North Carolina. His father was a Baptist preacher, who made sure his son had the opportunity to receive a quality education at a local Black-run private school. Revels took after his father and went on to study theology and become a preacher. Revels traveled all across the U.S. to preach the gospel to free and enslaved Black men and women. He even served in a church right here in Louisville, Kentucky. Of course, not everyone appreciated Revels’ preaching in the South. In 1854, he was arrested for the crime of “preaching the gospel to Negroes” in Missouri. 

When the Civil War broke out, Revels served as an army chaplain and recruited Black soldiers, and formed army regiments in Maryland to fight for the cause of the Union. Revels led and established several schools for freedmen across the U.S. before finally settling down in Mississippi in 1866, where he worked with the newly created Freedmen’s Bureau to provide Black children with new schools and a good education.

The Post-Civil War Battles in Congress for Equal Rights

Revels was the first to be elected and sent to D.C. to serve as a Senator for Mississippi. He arrived on Capitol Hill in 1870 to face the relentless opposition of Senate Democrats claiming his election was illegitimate. Democrats, lamentably led by Senator Garrett Davis from our Kentucky Commonwealth, asserted that Revels did not meet the Constitutional requirement in Article I, Section 3 that Senators had to have nine years of being a U.S. citizen. Davis and the Democrats argued that Revels had only been a citizen for four years following the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights and the ratification of the 14th Amendment, basing much of their argument on the poor legal decision of Dred Scott v. Sanford (1957) which held that “a negro, whose ancestors were imported into [the U.S.], and sold as slaves,” whether enslaved or free, could not be a citizen of the U.S. Revels and Republicans successfully refuted this, declaring Dred Scott a reprehensibly incorrect decision and arguing that the law’s mere recognition of Black men’s citizenship didn’t mean they were “new” citizens, as they should’ve already been recognized as such.

Joseph Rainey came to D.C. later that year after being elected to serve as a Representative for South Carolina’s 1st Congressional District. While Revels was only able to serve in Congress for just one year due to the nature of the special election, Rainey served a total of four terms (eight years), allowing him to play a significant part in crafting the earliest civil rights laws.

In the era of reconstruction following the Civil War, the rapid racial progress and Union occupation in the South led to growing resentment and the rise of the terroristic white supremacist groups such as the Ku Klux Klan and the White Legion. The violence of these groups was the worst in Rainey’s home state. The situation had gotten so bad that even public officials like Rainey himself had been subject to death threats. Rainey’s letter from the Klan read, “Your doom is sealed in blood … notice be given to [Joseph Rainey] to prepare to meet [his] God. Take heed, stay not. Here the climate is too hot for you.” Rainey and many Republicans were appalled and knew that something had to be done to put an end to the Klan’s terror. 

That is why Republicans introduced the Ku Klux Klan Act, also known as the Civil Rights Act of 1871. The Act allowed for federal lawsuits to be taken up against state officers and even private actors for civil rights violations, meaning a “deprivation of any rights, privileges, or immunities secured by the Constitution and laws.” It also empowered the President to suspend the writ of habeas corpus – the privilege to challenge and be free of alleged unlawful or indefinite detainment – and deploy federal troops to arrest terrorist white supremacists. Opponents of the Act rejected the idea of federal troops appropriating local authority to address crimes of murder, assault, and trespassing, asserting that such laws were best left behind in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.

Rainey had a powerful and persuasive story for his skeptical colleagues, though. He testified to the need for a greater federal response, as he personally witnessed the terror and potential bloodbaths to be inflicted by these white supremacists. Traveling by horseback to a Republican rally in the town of Bennettsville, South Carolina, Rainey and sixty of his fellow Republicans were confronted suddenly by an armed militia of hundreds of white supremacists brandishing shotguns, ax handles, and other weapons. Thankfully, federal troops were not too far behind, as they were tipped off and able to defuse the confrontation. 

Rainey concluded his story, grateful to the federal troops, and enquiring to his colleagues, “Do you expect my race to submit meekly to continual persecution and massacre by these people in the South? In the name of my race and my people, in the name of humanity, in the name of God, I ask you whether we are to be American citizens … or whether we are to be vassals and slaves again?”

The Ku Klux Klan Act was passed in Congress and signed into law by President Ulysses S. Grant later that day. Nearly six months later, Grant used his newly acquired powers in several South Carolina counties, demonstrating the willingness of the Republican-led federal government to ensure the preservation of civil rights. Grant’s military action and the federal government’s “legal offensive” effectively crushed the Klan of that era and “produced a dramatic decline in violence throughout the South.”

Rainey’s efforts to advance civil rights didn’t stop there. Just a few years later, the Republicans proposed the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which aimed to establish the “equality of all men before the law” and prohibit racial discrimination in public accommodations, such as restaurants and public transportation, but excluding schools and churches after facing heated opposition. The act also made it a crime for anyone to facilitate the denial of these public accommodations on the basis of color, race, or “previous condition of servitude.” Rainey’s speeches along with other new Black members of Congress helped propel the act to the desk of President Grant in March of 1875, where it would be signed into law.

The Legislators’ Legacies

In the perpetual battle for civil rights for African-Americans, the accomplishments of both Revels and Rainey faced some major setbacks. Congressman Rainey, who had served the longest of any Black congressman of his time, had his career cut short by a fraudulent election in 1878, in which his opponent, a white former Confederate officer and Democrat, won 62% of the vote in a majority Black, Republican district thanks to the spread of false ballots by Democratic leaders. Several years later in 1883, Rainey’s great work, the Civil Rights Act of 1875, took a major blow by the Supreme Court in the Civil Rights Cases, where the act was declared to be an unconstitutional exercise of Congress’s 14th amendment powers, arguing that the amendment did not permit federal regulation of private discrimination. The era of Jim Crow laws and Black voter suppression began, and Congress was soon devoid of all Black members. The Ku Klux Klan was revived in the 1920s with millions of new members.

As we all know, segregationists and the Klan did not win in the end. Just as the Klan was revived, so too was the movement for civil rights in the 1950s and ’60s. Legislators who were advocates for civil rights drew upon the work of Senator Revels, Congressman Rainey, and other pioneer Black congressmen to create the ambitious and still-enduring Civil Rights Acts of 1964 and 1968, along with the Voting Rights Act of 1965. African-Americans soon returned to the halls of Congress to continue a powerful history of legislative action for liberty and justice. Black Republican Senator Tim Scott, representing Congressman Rainey’s home state of South Carolina, reflected upon the progress made in America over the years and how his family went “from cotton to Congress in one lifetime,” an achievement shared and first made possible by our nation’s first Black Congressman. The great legacies of Senator Hiram Revels and Congressman Joseph Rainey endure to this day in the halls of Congress and the spirit of this country. It would serve us all well to step back, appreciate, and gain inspiration from these two phenomenal public servants.

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