GEORGETOWN — Lorna Rainey carries her great-grandfather’s legacy while working at the helm of a major talent management company, one of the few of such firms to be owned by an African-American woman.
She is a pioneer in a family known for being firsts.
For Georgetown and American history buffs, the name Rainey stands out for the political legend it is associated with. Yes, Lorna Rainey is the great-granddaughter of South Carolina’s Rep. Joseph Rainey, who in 1870 became the first African-American man to serve in the United States House of Representatives.
“I’m descended from greatness. I’m descended from a man who was determined and self-taught. And I feel like if he could make it then, there is no excuse for me to not be successful now,” Lorna said of her ancestor’s memory.
Joseph, born in Georgetown in the 1830s, is the epitome of a political pioneer — a freed slave who served in the legislative branch of a government that wouldn’t fully affirm his right to vote and equal treatment under the law for nearly another century. As a representative he spoke out against white supremacists and intimidation, advocated for civil rights and promoted public education.
Lorna Rainey, who lives in New York, learned about her family’s history from her Aunt Olive, the daughter of Joseph. Contained in the family story was more information about who Joseph was during his lifetime, information not known by even scholars of the era.
“From the time I was 3 years old my Aunt Olive would take me onto her knee every time I saw her and tell me the stories of her dad and the things he accomplished and the things that he went through before and during the time he was in congress. I grew up with that knowledge,” Lorna said. “I always knew who I was and no matter what happened no one could take that from me.”
But for the longest time, Lorna said few people were interested in learning more about the one of the first Black politicians on the national level. She would sometimes reach out to historians to offer insight, but frequently never heard back. It was also hard to find information beyond a paragraph about him in books and online.
“That all began to change about 20 years ago,” she said. “We’ve had very courageous people in our nation’s history and due to skewed interest we have glorified people that we should not have glorified and we ignored the people we should have paid attention to.”
South Carolina’s congressional delegation wants to further honor Joseph by renaming the Georgetown Post Office on Charlotte Street in his honor. All members of South Carolina’s delegation to the House of Representatives, regardless of party, endorsed changing the name.
“I never heard of Rep. Rainey until I was in Congress and I saw a portrait of him in a stairway up to the House of Representatives,” said Rep. Tom Rice, R-7, who filed the resolution to rename the post office on Dec. 10. “I did more research on him and I was really proud of the fact that the first African-American representative in the history of our country came right here from our district.”
Over the last several years, as a national conversation has erupted over who is worthy of being honored in public memory, Joseph’s prominence has risen. A portrait of him now hangs in the halls of congress and a room in the capital is named after him, a park in Georgetown also bears his name, as does a historical marker in Bermuda and some museums have information about him so visitors can learn more.
But University of South Carolina history professor Bobby Donaldson said the amount of recognition Rainey gets doesn’t match his great contributions to this country’s history.
A key reason for this, Donaldson argued, is how Reconstruction in the South is often taught as a failed moment in history instead of a time where African-American leaders briefly gained political prominence before a backlash that would take decades to overcome.
Reconstruction was the period following the Civil War that technically lasted until 1876. New laws were imposed on the South in effort to reform the society that recently tolerated slavery.
There is a popular and pervasive myth in Southern culture that this period was a dark time, but it was actually a time of promise for Black residents.
“For 10 or 12 years, reconstruction worked. African-Americans were able to seek public office and represent the population. It was a powerful constituency,” said Brent Morris, a professor at USC Beaufort and director of the Institute for the Study of the Reconstruction Era. “Reconstruction wasn’t this dark period, it was a chance for America to make good on the ideals set forth in 1776.
Even though Joseph was a member of Congress, many white southerners were opposed to his leadership. Attempts to discredit Joseph happened in his lifetime and in the early history books. Many of the people he represented hated him for the color of his skin.
“During his time, despite his power and influence, Joseph Rainey was a target for attacks, a target for taunts and threats and he talked about it on the floors of congress,” Donaldson said.
In fact, Joseph was threatened directly by the Ku Klux Klan causing him to relocate his family to the north while he continued his term in South Carolina.
“He tried to make sure to keep his family safe because at different points in his career he was threatened by the KKK because he was an avid opponent of them and their viewpoints and their scare tactics and the murder of people of color. He would always use his position, his political capital, to make sure he shone a spotlight on them for the vermin they were,” Lorna said.
Joseph lost his election in 1878, largely due to voter intimidation and disenfranchisement, as Reconstruction was ending and the new Jim Crow era emerged. The South quickly regressed with less protections for African-Americans than during Reconstruction and a few years later saw the vast disenfranchisement of Black voters.
“This was a period America lost a piece of itself. It lost the truest expansion of its democracy,” Morris said. “The South in a lot of ways went back to the way it was before the Civil War.”
Donaldson believes renaming the post office comes at an ironic time. Before entering congress, Joseph helped rewrite the state’s constitution that helped enable him to seek higher office. Rainey believed in the expansion of civil rights and expanding public educational opportunities, while also facing voter fraud and intimidation in his district to keep people from voting for him.
He also had to deal with terrorism and the value of Black life.
“Rainey is someone I would call a founding father of South Carolina,” Donaldson added. “So it’s a striking irony this is happening now because for the longest time his contributions were marginalized and footnotes of history.”
Some scholars, especially African-American writers, discussed Joseph’s importance for decades, but those narratives were not widely spread or taught generally in schools, Morris said. Morris said much of his job involves helping people unlearn what they think happened during Reconstruction while teaching the important stories of the time.
Donaldson added some history books on reconstruction don’t even mention the name of Joseph Rainey, the threats he faced or the many benefits Reconstruction had for African-Americans in the South.
Lorna said the stories she heard from her aunt even contradicted the official history books. For example, she learned that her great-grandfather escaped slavery seeking refuge in Bermuda before her great-grandmother, despite many historians arguing that they left at the same time.
The family’s story goes that Joseph waited daily for abolitionists to fulfill their promise to liberate his wife, and one day the whole family was reunited.
“I knew the facts from sitting on my great aunt’s knee,” Lorna said. “One day he went down to the docks, looked and there she was. It’s a love story unlike any other and makes my heart flutter.”
Donaldson and Lorna have worked together to produce a more complete and accurate history of Joseph. Archives contain many of his letters and news articles show his political convictions, but other pieces like details of his early life and what Baptist church in Georgetown he is buried in remains unknown.
After the pandemic, Donaldson hopes to travel to Georgetown to continue piecing together the full story of Joseph Rainey. The Smithsonian Magazine published an article he wrote about the representative with the help of Lorna, who is also working on a documentary about her great-grandfather.
Donaldson, Morris and Lorna would like to see more complete histories taught in American schools of Joseph Rainey, his contemporaries and the time of Reconstruction overall.
“Renaming of a building is always a first step, but you don’t want the name Joseph Rainey to be chiseled into stone and that’s where the conversation stops,” Donaldson said. “I believe given his critical role we must reconstruct the history of our state and revise how we interpret Reconstruction.”
But naming the post office is a start, and Lorna was honored to hear the news when contacted by the Post and Courier Myrtle Beach & Georgetown Times. She believes everyone needs heroes, people to model themselves after. She has always had one, and hopes as more people learn about her great-grandfather, they will find inspiration from his story.
Like her Aunt Oliver, Lorna Rainey has taken it upon herself to tell her two kids about their great-great-grandfather. She imagines she feels the same way her aunt did, keeping Rep. Joseph Rainey’s legacy alive in the family.
“I feel exactly the same as she probably felt. She felt it was her obligation to tell me, her obligation to make me understand the gravity of what she was saying. I’ve done the same with my children."