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Honoring Our African American Congressional Pioneers

Under a previous order of the House, the gentleman from Illinois (Mr. Weller) is recognized for 5 minutes.

Rep. Gerald C. Weller

legislator photo

Mr. Speaker, I asked for this time today because I felt as we finish up the month of February, Black History Month, it would be appropriate for this body to take a step back into history and remember the pioneering African American Members of this body as well as two men from my State, Illinois, who fought against the practice of slavery.

Mr. Speaker, the Members may not know this, but of the first 19 African American Members of the House, each and every one of them was a Republican. And of the 19 black House pioneers, most were freed slaves. My time only allows me this evening just to mention a few of them because I think they each have very impressive stories and records of serving this country and working towards the goal of civil rights for all.

The first African American to serve in the House was Joseph H. Rainey from South Carolina. Mr. Rainey's parents, Edward and Gracey, were slaves when their son was born in 1832 in Georgetown, South Carolina. Rainey's father was a successful barber in the area and through hard work was able to earn and pay for the family's freedom from slavery. After the Civil War broke out in 1861, the Confederacy conscripted Joseph Rainey to work on the military fortifications of Charleston's harbor. Rainey dreamed of escaping from the military drudgery to a life working without the stigma of color. The dream became reality when he and his wife boarded a ship bound for the West Indies. Rainey took on the family trade and worked as a barber in Bermuda, and his wife worked as a dressmaker. He studied the manners and conversation of his educated customers, and hearing that opportunities for African Americans were better than they used to be in postwar South Carolina, the Raineys returned home. Rainey was elected to the United States House of Representatives in 1868, took office in 1869, was a leader in the fight for civil rights.

Mr. Speaker, I am proud to announce on this floor tonight that our own House Republican conference, led by the gentlewoman from Ohio (Ms. Pryce), has initiated a program called the Joseph Rainey Scholars to honor the memory of Congressman Joseph Rainey. The Rainey Scholars program aims to get African American students involved in government and to learn about the history of African Americans in the Congress. Currently, there are 10 college students participating in this program, which includes the option of being a congressional intern.

In 1871, Robert Brown Elliott was elected to the U.S. House as a black Republican from South Carolina. He had previously served as the State House Speaker, again was an outspoken advocate for civil rights and often noted the role of African Americans in our own Revolutionary War, the War of 1812, and on the side of the Union in the Civil War.

John Roy Lynch was elected to this body in 1873 as a Republican from Mississippi. Lynch was a Republican Party activist who served as a delegate to five Republican conventions. In fact, Mr. Lynch presided over the 1884 Republican convention in Chicago, serving as the first African American ever to preside over a national party convention.

Charles Nash, elected in 1875, a Republican, was the first black to represent Louisiana in Congress. John Mercer Langston was elected to the House in 1890 and later served as Consul General to Haiti. The first black Member of the United States Senate was also a Republican, Hiram Rhodes revels from Mississippi. Senator Rhodes took over the seat once held by the President of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis.

Mr. Speaker, we salute these African American pioneers in Congress, and we remember the path they have made for African Americans to make a difference in our government and in our country.

Additionally, Mr. Speaker, I would be remiss if I did not mention two other major figures in the Republican Party, both from my home State of Illinois. Though while not African American, both played a big role in the fight for freedom, opportunity, and equality. First, of course, was our 16th President, Abraham Lincoln. We all know under Lincoln's leadership the Republican vision of equality was advanced with the Emancipation Proclamation of 1863, followed by Lincoln's insistence that the abolition of slavery be part of the 1864 Republican platform.

But, Mr. Speaker, I also wanted to draw to the Members' attention Owen Lovejoy from Princeton, Illinois, a community I represent in the 11th Congressional District. Owen Lovejoy came to Princeton, Illinois, in 1838 to assume the ministry of the Hampshire Colony Congressional Church. He was known as a fiery abolitionist who preached his views from the pulpit, causing much dissention in a community already divided over the slavery issue.

A strong supporter of Abraham Lincoln, Lovejoy, a Republican, was elected to the State legislature and then in 1856 began five terms in the U.S. House of Representatives. Lovejoy became known for his efforts on behalf of the abolition of slavery and was among the leaders in the House in advancing civil rights. His home was one of the most important stations in the underground railroad in Illinois. Runaway slaves were harbored by the Lovejoy family until arrangements could be made for them to travel to the next station on the way to Canada and freedom. Today the Lovejoy home stands as a reminder of Lovejoy's efforts.

Mr. Speaker, as Black History Month comes to a close, let us remember our heroes, those pioneers who stood for freedom and led the way to today's equality.