U.S. House honors history-making Black congressman Joseph Hayne Rainey
Joseph Hayne Rainey, a Georgetown County native who made history in 1870 as the first Black man ever elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, will now have his name enshrined at the U.S. Capitol.
On Dec. 10, 2020, the 150th anniversary of Rainey’s swearing-in ceremony, the House passed a resolution honoring the pioneering Georgetown politician and officially named a room, H-150, in his honor at the U.S. Capitol.
The U.S. House of Representatives passed H.Res.1253 honoring Rainey. It was co-sponsored by U.S. Rep. Tom Rice (R-SC), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), House Republican Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), and House Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC). Read the full resolution here.
“It is a privilege to co-sponsor this bill that honors a true American patriot like Mr. Rainey. All South Carolinians can look up to Joseph Rainey as a trailblazer who fought for opportunity for all, and his legacy should be honored,” said Rice, who represents South Carolina’s 7th District, which includes Georgetown County.
Rainey was born into slavery in Georgetown in 1832. His father was a barber and used his earnings to buy freedom for himself and his family, including Joseph. Later, during the Civil War, Joseph was drafted by the Confederacy, but he escaped to Bermuda with his wife and started a business.
In 1866, he returned to Georgetown, where he became Georgetown County’s Republican Party Chairman. In 1870, he was elected to the U.S. Congress, where he served until 1879, making him the longest serving African-American member of Congress in the 19th century. He was sworn in on Dec. 12, 1870.
Clyburn, who represents the 6th District of South Carolina, said in a video shared by Twitter that because of Rainey, he now serves with 58 other African-Americans in the U.S. House of Representatives.
“That’s over a quarter of the membership of the House,” Clyburn said, adding that there are also six African-Americans serving on standing committees in the House.
“Let us all celebrate and hope that because of his good work … we can work to reach across the aisle and across the racial barriers, trying to do what is necessary to help this country fulfill its creed of liberty and justice for all,” he said. “And they are doing so by making sure the country’s greatness is accessible and affordable for all.”
Rice said he also introduced a bill, along with all members of the South Carolina Delegation, to rename the Georgetown Post Office for Rainey.
“Joseph Rainey fought tirelessly for civil rights, education, and economic opportunity for all,” Rice said. “He has left behind a legacy that will never be forgotten.”
In addition to being the first Black man to be elected to the House, Rainey was also the first Black man to preside over the House, and he became the longest-serving Black lawmaker in Congress during Reconstruction. Rainey worked to pass civil rights legislation, fund public schools, and guarantee equal protection under the law.
“I can only raise my voice,” Rainey said in 1877, “and I would do it if it were the last time I ever did it, in defense of my rights and in the interests of my oppressed people.”
Steve Williams, a Georgetown historian and author of “Ebony Effects: 150 Unknown Facts about Blacks in Georgetown, SC,” calls Rainey the “greatest political leader Georgetown has ever produced.”
“He was born an ordinary man, under sub-ordinary conditions, but he rose to extraordinary heights,” Williams wrote in his book, and notes that Rainey, despite being elected only five years after the end of the Civil War, delivered “sound leadership during one of the state’s most difficult periods.”
“Blacks and whites alike respected him for his even-handed and astute leadership,” Williams concludes in a chapter dedicated to Rainey. “The son of both a slave and a slave owner, Joseph Hayne Rainey was the Barack Obama of his day.”
Rainey’s memory has already been enshrined in Georgetown history. A park is named after him along Front Street, and his home at 909 Prince St. is part of the city’s celebrated walking tour of the Historic Register Homes. Visitors to the Hammock Coast can also find out more about Rainey in a new African-American Heritage Tour walking tour. Brochures for both walking tours are available at the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce‘s Visitors Centers, located at 531 Front St. in Georgetown and 28 Wall St. in the Litchfield community of Pawleys Island.
By Clayton Stairs/tourism manager for the Georgetown County Chamber of Commerce