From Vice President Kamala Harris to Senator Raphael Warnock, Black political leaders stand on the shoulders of trailblazers who broke barriers for them to have a seat at the governing table. One of those pioneers is the country’s first Black congressman Joseph H. Rainey whose legacy was celebrated at the U.S. Capitol this month, CBS News reported.
Rainey, a South Carolina native, was born into slavery. Although enslaved, his father was authorized to work as a barber and eventually bought his family’s freedom during the early 1840s. Since African Americans were barred from receiving a formal education, Rainey followed in his father’s footsteps and pursued a path in barbering. Amid the Civil War, he was forced by the Confederate Army to build ramparts along the Charleston harbor and later fled to the West Indies. He resided there until the war ended and returned to the United States in 1866. Rainey ventured into the world of politics in 1868 when he became a delegate to the state constitutional convention. He had a short stint in the state Senate prior to becoming the first Black person to be elected to the U.S. House of Representatives in 1870.
Rainey—who was reappointed to serve four times during the Reconstruction era—had the longest tenure of any Black elected official in the House during that period. He was at the forefront of advancing civil rights legislation for marginalized communities.
Political leaders—including Congresswoman Joyce Beatty, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, and Congressman Tom Rice—honored Rainey by dedicating a room to the congressman at the U.S. Capitol and unveiling a plaque that bared his name. The space is where Rainey often conducted his work.
During the ceremony, Representative Jim Clyburn—the ninth African American from South Carolina to be elected to Congress—paid homage to Rainey while bringing attention to the lack of representation in politics. “Study the history. Know their history,” he said in a statement, according to the news outlet. “The problem is there are 95 years between No. 8 and No. 9.”
According to the Pew Research Center, 23 percent of members of the U.S. House of Representatives and Senate come from diverse backgrounds.