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Rainey in Bermuda: The First African American Member of the House of Representatives’ Bermuda Connection

by Don Kennon

While on a recent vacation in Bermuda, I had no idea that a chance walk up an alley in St. George’s would bring me face to face with Capitol history.

The plaque in Barber's Alley, St. George's, Bermuda

The tour bus had stopped for a 45-minute break to allow us to stretch our legs, get a bite to eat, and of course, shop. As the time drew near to get back to the bus, I searched for a shortcut and started up an alley toward the main street. A sign at the end of the alley said “Barber’s Alley.” A large plaque on the side of the building caught my attention. “Officially Designated a UNESCO Slave Route Project” it read. But what really caught my attention was the name “Joseph Rainey” in the inscription. Could that be the same Joseph Rainey who was the first African American to serve in the United States House of Representatives? Yes, he was, as the full inscription revealed:


Joseph Rainey came to Bermuda in 1862
and set up a barber shop on this site.
He returned to America in 1866 and became
one of the first Black Americans elected to
the United States House of Representatives.

Intrigued, I consulted the biographical essay on Joseph Hayne Rainey in the Black Americans in Congress website created and maintained by the House of Representatives. There you will learn that indeed Rainey had fled to Bermuda in 1862 after he had been conscripted into service by the Confederacy to work aboard a blockade runner and to dig trenches to fortify Charleston.

Rainey’s father, who was a barber, managed to buy his family’s freedom in the 1840s. Joseph, born in 1832, learned the trade from his father and used it in Bermuda to build a successful business. As Walter Bristol Douglas details in his scholarly study, Knights of the Razor: Black Barbers in Slavery and Freedom (Johns Hopkins University Press, 2009), African American barbers held a higher status and achieved greater prosperity than most black workers, in spite of restrictive laws and racial discrimination.

Photograph of Rainey, ca. 1870, Brady-Handy Collection, Library of Congress

Why did Rainey and his wife flee to Bermuda? Most likely because the island, which lies some 670 miles east-southeast of Cape Hatteras, was an important stop for the ships engaged in running the Union blockade of the Confederacy. As Cyril Outerbridge Packwood reveals in Detour—Bermuda, Destination—U.S. House of Representatives: The Life of Joseph Hayne Rainey (Baxter’s, 1977), business boomed in Bermuda as the island “teemed with sailors from all over the world, adventurers, Northern and Southern spies. … Local merchants did extremely well during this ‘easy come, easy go’ period. Such was the setting Joseph Hayne Rainey stepped into.” He established his barber shop in the converted kitchen of the Tucker House, advertising “Hair-Cutting, Shampooing, Shaving, &c, &c, Executed in Artistic Style.” His wife also went into business as a dressmaker.

Oil on canvas portrait by Simmie Knox, 2005, Collection of U.S. House of Representatives

Slavery had been abolished in Bermuda in 1834 and the Raineys were welcomed into the island’s free black community. Joseph became a member of the Alexandrina Lodge of the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows in Hamilton, the capital of Bermuda. Bermudans so highly regarded Rainey that they named the street where his shop was located “Barber’s Alley.” When Rainey returned to South Carolina after the war, he benefited from his status to rise in the Republican Party and to serve in the state constitutional convention and the state senate. He then won the election to fill a vacancy in the House of Representatives that made him the first African American member of the House when he took his seat in December 1870 (Hiram Revels of Mississippi, the first African American senator, preceded Rainey in Congress in February 1870). To learn more about Rainey’s congressional career, see the biographical essay on the Black Americans in Congress web site.

Have you perchance stumbled upon a Capitol history connection in an unexpected place? Let us know.