Pioneering Black Member to Be Honored

Posted September 20, 2005 at 6:56pm

A few years ago, Rep. Chaka Fattah (D-Pa.) was leading his then-teenage son on a personal tour of the Capitol when it struck him: There was a “dearth” of portraits of black people. In fact, at the time of the tour, there weren’t any at all.

So Fattah began pressing for such a portrait.

Today, Fattah’s efforts will be rewarded when a portrait of the late Rep. Joseph Rainey (R-S.C.), the first directly elected black Member to be seated in Congress, is unveiled in the Rayburn House Office Building Foyer at 2 p.m.

Indeed, the unveiling marks the first of a string of three portrait unveilings for women and minorities who served in Congress. Paintings of the first female elected to Congress, the late Rep. Jeannette Rankin (R-Mont.), and of the first Hispanic to chair a Congressional committee, the late Rep. Romualdo Pacheco (R-Calif.), are due to be unveiled within the next three weeks.

“These three portraits are certainly not the end of our efforts … but rather, the continuation of an ongoing effort” to have artwork that “represents the rich and diverse history of our great country,” said Rep. Bob Ney (R-Ohio), who as House Administration chairman also chairs the House Fine Arts Board. In that capacity, Ney is responsible for approving such portraits.

The Rainey portrait, which will be located on the third floor of the House side of the Capitol adjacent to the visitors’ galleries, becomes only the second portrait of a black person to hang in the Capitol. A painting of former Sen. Blanche Bruce (R-Miss.), the first black American to serve a full term in the Senate, has adorned the Senate side since late 2002. In addition, a bust of Martin Luther King Jr. is located in the Rotunda.

Rainey, who was elected to the House in 1870, served on the South Carolina Republican Party executive committee, as a representative to the 1868 South Carolina Constitutional Convention and in the Palmetto state Senate. He died in 1887.

During the Civil War, Rainey, a former barber and the son of slaves, was drafted by the Confederacy. He escaped to Bermuda, where slavery was prohibited, and spent the duration of the conflict there.

During his Congressional tenure, Rainey, who served more than four terms in the House after winning a special election, developed a reputation for battling racial discrimination and for advocating the use of the military to protect black voters from the Ku Klux Klan.

Fattah said Rainey’s portrait marked the “continuation of a long struggle to unearth and highlight the contributions of African Americans.” He added that for much of the United States’ history, such contributions went largely unrecognized.

The portrait depicts a seated Rainey sporting whiskers, striped pants and a bow tie. It was painted by Simmie Knox, an African-American artist based in the Washington area who is best known for his official White House portraits of former President Bill Clinton and former first lady and now Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton (D-N.Y.).

In addition to Fattah, Knox and Ney, nearly a dozen descendants of Rainey, including his great-great-granddaughter, Jody Rainey Wingate, are expected to attend the event.

“This is certainly a long time coming,” said a spokeswoman for the Congressional Black Caucus. “We want more. We certainly want to see more people that look like us.”