This Day in History

Dec. 12, 1870: Joseph H. Rainey First African-American in U.S. House of Reps

Time Periods: Reconstruction Period: 1865 - 1876
Themes: African American, Reconstruction, Democracy & Citizenship, Racism & Racial Identity

Source: Library of Congress Brady-Handy Photograph Collection

If they [Democrats] will continue to proscribe us, if they will continue to cultivate prejudice against us; if they will continue to decry the Negro and crush him under foot, then you cannot expect the Negro to rise while the Democrats are trampling upon him and his rights. We ask you, sir, to do by the Negro as you ought to do by him in justice.

Joseph H. Rainey, from South Carolina, took his seat on Dec. 12, 1870, becoming the first African-American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives.

On April 1, 1871, he gave his first major speech, arguing for the use of federal troops to protect African Americans from the Ku Klux Klan.

When myself and colleagues shall leave these Halls and turn our footsteps toward our Southern homes we know not but that the assassin may await our coming, as marked for his vengeance.

Soon after, President Ulysses S. Grant signed the Ku Klux Klan Act into law. However, Klan terrorism continued.

For more on Rainey, read his speech “Reply to An Attack Upon the Colored State Legislators of South Carolina by Representative Cox on New York, 1871” posted at BlackPast.org and ‘History: 1st Black lawmaker serves in Congress’ at the Clarion-Ledger.

Find resources below for teaching about the Reconstruction era and at our Teach Reconstruction campaign.