First African American Congressman Elected: Newspapers React
Joseph Hayne Rainey was the first African American ever elected to Congress, winning the 1870 election to represent the First District of South Carolina in the U.S. House of Representatives. (Hiram Rhodes Revels has the honor of being the first African American to serve in Congress, having joined the U.S. Senate on Feb. 25, 1870—but he was appointed by the Mississippi State Senate to finish a term, not directly elected to his seat as Rainey was.) When Rainey was sworn in on Dec. 12, 1870, newspapers across the country had a range of reactions: some laudatory, some sarcastic and racist.
Perhaps the bluntest comment was this report, published by the Wooster Republican (Wooster, Ohio) on Dec. 29, 1870:
The Democracy will now have another spasm, a colored delegate from South Carolina, Hon. James H. Rainey, having been admitted to a seat in the National House of Representatives. Shades of John C. Calhoun and nullification, only think of it! South Carolina, the hot bed of treason, in which sprouted the seeds of the late slaveholders’ rebellion, represented in the Congress of the United States by a “nigger.”
Many reports made a point of commenting on Rainey’s appearance, especially his skin color, as in the following example. The reporter notes that Rainey showed up for his first day of work wearing a clean shirt, and suggests that his gold watch chain may only be oroide (an alloy used to imitate gold jewelry). This report also calls Rainey “contraband,” meaning a slave who escaped during the Civil War, even though Rainey’s father, a slave who worked as a barber, had saved enough money to purchase his family’s freedom shortly after Rainey was born. It is true that Rainey and his wife did escape from South Carolina to Bermuda in 1862, returning to South Carolina after the war in 1866 and beginning his political career.
Here is that report, published by the Cincinnati Commercial (Cincinnati, Ohio) on the front page of its Dec. 13, 1870, issue:
Special Telegram to the Commercial
Washington, December 12—The House treated the galleries, today, to scenes quite unusual at this early day of the session, and the entertainment was very satisfactory to a well selected audience. The first subject of interest was the swearing in of James H. Rainey, the colored successor of the cadet seller, Whittemore, of the First District of South Carolina, whose credentials were presented by Dawes. The documents were received without opposition, even by Brooks, Cox or Eldridge, and Rainey was ordered to the bar to take the oath. He is a snuff colored contraband, of medium height, and well knit frame. He has shiny black side whiskers, well combed hair, nicely parted, and curling at the ends. He dresses unusually well for a Southern member of Congress, being attired today in well cut garments of black material, a clean shirt, a gold or oroide watch chain, and a black cotton glove upon his left hand. Taking a position in front of the Speaker, he put his heels together like a soldier, and raised his hand to take the oath, which was administered by the Speaker, Blaine, in his usual manner, while the whole House looked on in amazement. He is evidently a polite contraband, for he bowed courteously to the Speaker, and punctuated the oath with an inclination of the head as every sentence was pronounced. When this ceremony was over the man and brother shook hands with Maynard, and he was assigned a seat in the furthermost corner of the Hall. Rainey was born in Georgetown, [South Carolina], and is thirty-eight years old. He never went to school, but is reasonably well educated. His parents were slaves, but by industry purchased their freedom, and with them he removed to Charleston, where he has since resided. His first vote was given for Banks’ San Domingo resolution.
This article, emphasizing Rainey’s Caucasian features, was reprinted by the Morning Republican (Little Rock, Arkansas) on Dec. 20, 1870:
J. W. [correction: H.—ed.] Rainey, the colored member from South Carolina, took his seat in the House of Representatives December 12. The New York Herald says: “A bright mulatto, with long, dark, straight, glossy hair, bushy side whiskers, and decidedly Caucasian features, he looks more like a Cuban than a negro. His first vote was in favor of Gen. Banks’ St. Domingo resolution. He was born in Georgetown [South Carolina], where his father and his mother were both slaves, and is about thirty nine years of age.”
The New York Herald (New York, New York) complained that Rainey was not dark enough, publishing this comment on Dec. 13, 1870:
A Half-Way Measure
The Hon. Joseph H. Rainey, the new “light complected” colored member of the House of Representative from South Carolina, sworn in yesterday. Let the full-blooded Scipio Africanus appear and then the House will be all right.
The Herald’s was not the only sarcastic response. This article was published by the Cincinnati Daily Enquirer (Cincinnati, Ohio) on Dec. 18, 1870:
Rainey, the South Carolina Member of Congress, who succeeds Parson Whittemore, is described as a bright quadroon, eminently handsome. It is possible that “the infernal spirit of casts” may receive a severer blow through Rainey than by the presence of cocoanut Smith at West Point, or Revels in the Senate. Some fair Radical, thoroughly imbued with modern ideas, may fall in love with and marry him. Here is a suggestion for Anna Dickinson. If she will spruce up a little, and play her cards adroitly, she may possibly enforce, in a practical way, the lesson taught in her novel.
[Note: the reference to Dickinson concerns her 1868 novel What Answer, which features an interracial marriage.]
Some newspapers noted with relief that Rainey was able to assume his position without conflict or even objection. This article was published by the Boston Daily Journal (Boston, Massachusetts) on Dec. 13, 1870:
Special Dispatch to the Boston Journal.
Washington, Dec. 12, 1870.
A Colored Representative Sworn In.
Immediately after the reading of the journal in the House this morning, Mr. Dawes presented the credentials of Hon. Joseph H. Rainey, the colored Representative-elect from South Carolina. No objection was made, the Democrats seeming to take it as a matter of course; consequently there were no unusual incidents. Mr. Rainey was escorted almost to the Speaker’s desk by Mr. Dawes.
This notice was published by the Cincinnati Daily Gazette (Cincinnati, Ohio) on Dec. 13, 1870:
The House of Representatives has opened its doors to the colored man. Yesterday the Hon. Joseph H. Rainey presented his credentials as a member of Congress from [South Carolina], and was admitted to his seat.
Some papers praised Rainey and expected good things from his political career. This article was published by the Annapolis Gazette (Annapolis, Maryland) on Dec. 27, 1870:
Rainey, the colored member of Congress from South Carolina, is spoken of by Washington correspondents as “a man of fine personal appearance, a light mulatto, with more of the look of a Cuban than a negro. He is an able man, and will do himself and his constituents credit.” For a man who has been born a slave, to rise to the enviable position he now occupies, and that too, by his own exertions, in spite of race and color, is certainly creditable in the extreme, and friend and foe alike, cannot but admire the qualities he possesses, to rise superior to many of his contemporaries.
There was the opposite reaction as well, as shown in this comment the Georgia Weekly Telegraph (Macon, Georgia) reprinted on Jan. 3, 1871:
We are assured that Rainey, the negro Congressman, never went to school a day in his life, and yet he has contrived to educate himself so well that when reading a newspaper he doesn’t hold it upside down more than half the time.—Courier-Journal
Rainey’s congressional opportunity came about as the result of scandal. The vacancy he filled was due to his predecessor, Benjamin F. Whittemore, being censured by the House for corruption. Rainey performed his duties admirably, and was re-elected to Congress four times, serving from 1870 until 1879.
For more information, visit the Joseph Hayne Rainey website provided by the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress.
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