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First Black congressman honored at U.S. Capitol

Joseph H. Rainey, who was born into slavery in 1832 and went on to become the nation's first Black congressman, was honored at the U.S. Capitol last week. 

"Study the history. Know their history," said Representative Jim Clyburn in an interview with CBS News. Clyburn noted that when he was elected in 1992, he was only the ninth Black American from South Carolina elected to Congress.

Joseph H. Rainey's great-granddaughter Lorna Rainey addresses the audience and reporters during a news conference to unveil the Joseph H. Rainey Room at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, Thursday, Feb. 3, 2022.  Office of Majority Whip Clyburn

"The problem is there are 95 years between No. 8 and No. 9," said Clyburn, who is now the Majority Whip and third-most powerful member of Congress. "Anything that's happened before can happen again. Jim Crow happened once and it can happen again. Study the history."  

Rainey's great-granddaughter Lorna Rainey said in an interview that her great-aunt, Rainey's daughter, used to tell her about him since he was in very few history books. Lorna Rainey said her great-aunt would say "Lorna, you're going to be the one to tell everyone about the Congressman." 

She said that Rainey's father, Edward, worked as a barber, one of the few other professions that slaves were allowed to take on, even though law required them to give the master part of their earnings. Over the years, he saved enough money to buy the family's freedom. 

When the Civil War broke out, Confederates swept through the city enlisting every able-bodied man, free or not. Joseph Rainey was put to work on fortifications around Charleston Harbor. Taking a well-planned route, he escaped to Bermuda where slavery had been abolished 20 years before, and shortly after, he was joined by his wife Susan. They remained in Bermuda until the end of the Civil War. 

Rainey returned to the U.S with a determination to help the newly freed Black slaves and others avail themselves of the new opportunities that had been promised. He felt the best way to do that was by entering politics; to work within the system to achieve profound and lasting changes. 

Rainey won a special election to Congress and was seated on December 12, 1870. Once elected, he championed the rights of the Freedmen, Chinese railroad workers, and Native Americans as well as all his constituents. He was a member of the House Indian Affairs Committee. 

Clyburn stressed that his own mother told him "the true Black history that you must read." 

Clyburn was joined by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, Minority Whip Steve Scalise, Congresswoman Joyce Beatty of Ohio and Congressman Tom Rice of South Carolina to dedicate a room for Rainey, Room H-150 in the Capitol, where he frequently worked. A plaque was placed outside the room in his honor.

Representative Jim Clyburn unveils the he Joseph H. Rainey Room at the U.S. Capitol. Office of Majority Whip Clyburn

Joseph Rainey also has been honored in his home district in recent years. In mid -2021, Lorna Rainey received a call from Congressman Tim Rice's office whose district encompasses her great-grandfather's former district. They wanted to name their brand new Post Office after him and wanted to get approval from the Rainey family.  

"Of course, I was all too thrilled to give my assent," Lorna Rainey said. The formal ceremony was in Georgetown, S.C. on November 9, 2021. 

Lorna Rainey said she inherited the same never-quit attitude from her great-grandfather, which she said inspired her to start her own company, Talent Express Management, in 1991, after she was given what she considered an unethical ultimatum. At that time, she was the only minority agent outside of Manhattan.

She also noted her father's legacy as a dedicated husband and father. She said when the Red Shirts, who later became known as the Ku Klux Klan, threatened him with death and bodily harm, he moved his family to Windsor, Connecticut, but continued doing "the people's work."  His concern for his family led him to make sure they were safe even though his own life was in danger. 

"Great-grandfather was not only a fierce and determined politician committed to raising the quality of life for American citizens, he was also a dedicated husband and father," Lorna Rainey said.

Disclosure: The author of this story is represented by Lorna Rainey's company, Talent Express.

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