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US House of Representatives honours Bermuda barber turned congressman

James Clyburn, the US House of Representatives Majority Whip, opens the Joseph H Rainey Room, named after a former Bermuda barber who became the first Black person to win a seat in Congress (Photograph supplied)

The US House of Representatives has unveiled a room to honour a former Bermuda barber who became the first Black person to win a seat in Congress.

House members met descendants of Joseph Rainey this month to open the Joseph H Rainey Room in the US Capitol, where Congress meets.

James Clyburn, the House Majority Whip, said during the ceremony: “This is a proud moment for the House of Representatives and the entire country.

“My colleagues and I have come together in a bipartisan effort to honour an inspiring figure in our nation’s history.”

He added: “Joseph Rainey’s courage and willingness to be the voice of South Carolina’s 1st district for eight years in the face of rampant voter suppression and intimidation is a testament to why we honour him today.”

The plan to rename one of the rooms in the Capitol was announced two years ago after Congress celebrated the 150th anniversary of Mr Rainey’s election.

Karen Grissette, Bermuda’s US Consul General, said that Mr Rainey’s time in Bermuda during the US Civil War, when he ran a barber shop in St George, was an example of the “unique relationship between the US and Bermuda”.

She added: “My visit to Tucker House this week provided timely insight into what Mr Rainey learnt during his time here and how he applied his knowledge and experience to launch his extraordinary political career.

“Joseph Rainey’s legacy lives on, in both countries through the dedication of Barber’s Alley in St George’s, Bermuda, and a portrait displayed for many to see in a room renamed in his honour in the US Capitol.”

Mr Rainey was born in Georgetown, South Carolina, in 1832.

His parents were enslaved persons, but his father was able to buy his family’s freedom and taught his son to be a barber.

Mr Rainey was drafted to work on a Civil War Confederate blockade runner in 1861, but escaped the next year and travelled to Bermuda with Susan, his wife, who was originally from the West Indies.

He set up a barbershop in or near the kitchen of the historic Tucker’s House at the junction of Water Street and Barber’s Alley in St George.

He returned to the US in 1866 and joined the executive committee of the newly formed South Carolina Republican party and was elected as a delegate to the state constitutional convention in 1868.

Mr Rainey was elected to a four-year term in the South Carolina senate two years later, but was soon put forward for a special election for a seat in Congress.

He won the election in 1870 and joined Congress in December that year.

He broke another barrier when he became the first African-American representative to preside over a House of Representatives session in 1874.

Mr Rainey was re-elected in 1876 in a close election against John Richardson.

Mr Richardson challenged again two years later and defeated Mr Rainey.

Mr Rainey died of malaria in Georgetown in 1887 and was survived by his wife and three children.

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Published February 21, 2022 at 7:41 am (Updated February 21, 2022 at 7:41 am)

US House of Representatives honours Bermuda barber turned congressman

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