The U.S. Congress – for good or ill – has seemingly been in the news for most of the last year. A wave of women and minorities hit the House of Representative in 2016 and 2018. There haven’t been too many minorities in the Congress in my lifetime (I’m 41 years old). However, the ones that have served in Congress have 2 people to thank, for breaking down the color barrier.
Joseph Hayne Rainey (1832-1887) was the first Black Representative, serving in the U.S. House for 5 terms (1869-1879), from the state of South Carolina. Rainey was born in South Carolina, into slavery. When the Civil War broke out, he worked as a cook and trench-digger for the Confederate Army, before escaping to Bermuda with his wife (where slavery was abolished). He returned to Georgetown, SC in 1867, became the Republican county chairman in 1869, and became a Congressman later that year. In addition to becoming the first Black Representative, he was also the first Black Congress member to preside over the U.S. House, as well as the longest-serving Black Congressman during Reconstruction.
More info on Joseph Rainey and his stint as a Congressman: Rainey Bio
Before Joseph Rainey was serving in the House, 1869 also saw Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827-1901) become the first Black U.S. Senator; he served from 1869-1871 as a Senator from Mississippi. Revels was born a freeman in Fayetteville, North Carolina. He traveled the Midwest and Midsouth, carrying out religious work, before moving to Maryland to accept a position in the Presbyterian Church (counting a stop in St. Louis, where he was arrested for preaching to the black community in 1854). He then served as a recruiter and chaplain during the Civil War, before becoming Senator. An odd fact with his term: he had to wait to go to Washington, D.C until Mississippi was readmitted back into the Union. After his term, he became the first president of Alcorn University (formerly Oakland College).
More info on Hiram Revels, including his policies and life before the Civil War: Revels Bio