Joseph Rainey was distinguished in many ways—he was the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives, the first African American to preside over the House of Representatives, and the longest–serving African American during Reconstruction.
He also had pretty nice mutton chops.
Rainey was born into slavery in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina. After his father purchased their freedom, the family moved to Charleston, where Rainey’s father taught him to be a barber. While visiting Philadelphia in 1859 Rainey met his wife, Susan, who was originally from the West Indies. They eventually had three children.
When the Civil War broke out, the Confederate army forced Rainey to dig trenches and work as a cook and a steward on a blockade runner. In 1862, however, he and his family were able to make their way to Bermuda, where the couple accumulated a good deal of wealth due to the island’s strong economy.
After the war ended, they returned to Charleston. With their wealth, their social status increased considerably, and Rainey became active in politics. After moving back to Georgetown, SC, and serving in numerous capacities, Rainey was elected as a Republican to the 41st Congress to fill the vacancy of Representative B. Franklin Whittemore.
Rainey was sworn in on December 12, 1870, as the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. He was reelected to the 42nd and to the three succeeding Congresses, serving from December 12, 1870, to March 3, 1879, making him the longest-serving African American member of Congress during Reconstruction.
February is Black History Month. Visit the National Archives website for more information on our resources related to African American History.