US House honors 150th anniversary of Joseph Rainey’s historic swearing-in

In 1870, Rainey became the first Black American to serve in the US House of Representatives

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On Dec. 12, 1870, Joseph Haynes Rainey became the first Black American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Nearly 150 years later, members of Congress are commemorating Rainey’s swearing-in with a new congressional exhibit. 

“If you were to come in my office, the first thing you’d see when you step off the elevator is a big portrait of Joseph Rainey. I worship these firsts because I think they give us a good sense of who and what we are, where we were, and how far we need to go,” said House Majority Whip, Rep. Jim Clyburn.

Read More: Rep. Jim Clyburn was instrumental to Joe Biden’s success

“This resolution that we’re introducing today is an honor of Rainey’s legacy. We hope to get it passed tomorrow before the anniversary which will be Saturday, December 12.”

The “Joseph Rainey: 150 Years of Black Americans Elected to Congress” exhibit, a project led by Clerk of the House, Cheryl Johnson, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Clyburn is located on the first floor in the House Connecting Corridor in the U.S. Capitol.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Majority Whip Rep. Jim Clyburn view exhibit dedicated to Joseph Rainey, the first Black American elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. (Photo: Provided to theGrio)

Rainey’s exhibit is part of a collection that celebrates Black political titans including representatives Shirley Chisholm and Barbara Jordan, Civil Rights icon Rep. John Lewis, and more. In recent years, organizers across the country have demanded greater recognition of under-told history-makers.

This September, Floridians got the green light to send a statue of educator Mary McLeod Bethune to represent the state in the U.S. Capitol, replacing confederate general Kirby Smith and in February. Statues of abolitionists Harriet Tubman and Frederick Douglass also entered the Maryland State House. Such actions show the interest more Americans are taking in using symbols to express national values and aid public education. 

A son of Georgetown, South Carolina, Rainey was born enslaved to Edward L Rainey, a barber, and Grace Rainey, a woman of mixed French and African descent. In the early 1840s when Rainey’s father saved up enough of his barber earnings to purchase the family’s freedom. Joseph Rainey was eventually conscripted in the Confederate Army during the civil war but escaped his forced service and fled to Bermuda.

In 1865, he returned to the states and became active in the Black-led Republican civil rights movements that helped define the Reconstruction Era. By 1870, he won his election in one of South Carolina’s House seats and was re-elected four times after, making him the longest-serving Black lawmaker during that period. 

In 1877, President Rutherford B. Hayes effectively ended Reconstruction with the Tilden-Hayes Compromise, an informal agreement between moderate Democrats and Reconstructionist Republicans to withdraw federal troops from the South in exchange for the South’s acceptance of Hayes’ election.

After George Washington Murray’s term ended in 1897, no Black South Carolinians served in Congress again until 1992 with the election of Jim Clyburn. 

“In Rainey, you see a story of courage and responsibility in knowing that it’s not just about him, it’s about a people. He didn’t just want to make history, he wanted to make progress. He emphasized education, which is key to recognizing the innate talent in everyone and allowing that to blossom and how an informed population is central to democracy,” said Speaker Pelosi. 

Some of the struggles Rainey confronted during his service persist today, like access to quality, public education, strengthening Black economies, and securing voting rights. According to a 2017 report by the nonprofit Rural School and Community Trust, South Carolina ranked fourth in the nation in terms of the highest need for greater support, citing factors such as poverty and student achievement. 

During the 2020 general election, Clyburn also spoke out against the failure of South Carolina’s state legislature to approve drop-off boxes for mail-in ballots. 

“Rainey fought so that the education he was denied will be there for others and he focused on the issues that were most relevant to formerly enslaved people. We still have an urgent need to educate our children, especially in rural communities,” said Clyburn.

“If Rainey were here today he would be working on these issues and getting the John R. Lewis Voting Rights Act passed.”  

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