FW: ANB - Bio of the Day: James Thomas Rapier
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Subject: ANB - Bio of the Day
American National Biography Online
Rapier, James Thomas (13 Nov. 1837-31 May 1883), congressman
from Alabama, was born of free parents in Florence, Alabama,
the son of John H. Rapier, a barber, and Susan (maiden name unknown).
As a youngster, he was sent to live with his father's mother,
Sally Thomas, and his father's half-brother after whom Rapier
was named, James Thomas, and to attend school in Nashville, Tennessee.
Sally and James Thomas, although legally slaves, hired their
own time and lived autonomous lives. Young Rapier thrived under
their care and learned to read and write.
At the age of nineteen Rapier was sent by his father to Buxton,
Canada West, an all-black settlement, to continue his education.
At a school founded by the Presbyterian minister William King,
he studied Latin, Greek, mathematics, and the Bible. He also
underwent a religious conversion and later taught school in the
settlement. "My coming to Canada is worth all the world to me,"
he wrote in 1862. "I have a tolerable good education and I am
at peace with my Savior."
Returning to the South in 1864, he went to Nashville, and later
to Maury County, Tennessee. In 1865 he entered the political
arena by delivering a keynote address at the Tennessee Negro
Suffrage Convention in Nashville. When former Confederates returned
to power during Tennessee's first postwar elections in 1865-1866,
Rapier returned home to Florence. With the assistance of his
father he rented a farm on Seven Mile Island in the Tennessee
River, hired black tenant farmers, and raised a cotton crop.
Following the passage of the Congressional Reconstruction Acts
in 1867, which enfranchised freedmen and provided for new state
governments in the South, Rapier again turned to politics. He
won a seat at Alabama's first Republican convention in Montgomery
and helped draft the new party platform calling for free speech,
free press, and free schools. But he knew the fragility of the
new coalition of blacks and pro-Union whites and asked fellow
Republicans to proceed with "calmness, moderation and intelligence."
In November 1867 Rapier attended the Alabama Constitutional Convention,
supporting a civil rights plank and a moderate franchise clause
that would exclude from the vote only those disfranchised by acts of
Despite his advocacy of moderation, however, during the tumultuous
months preceding the 1868 presidential election, Rapier was driven
from his home in Lauderdale County by the Ku Klux Klan. Barely
escaping with his life (several fellow blacks were hanged from
a bridge near Florence), he fled to Montgomery, where he spent
almost a year in seclusion. In 1869 he attended the National
Negro Labor Union convention in Washington, D.C. (he also attended
two subsequent conventions), and in 1871 he founded the Alabama
Negro Labor Union in an effort to improve working conditions
for laborers and tenant farmers.
In 1870 Rapier became his party's nominee for secretary of state.
Despite a vigorous campaign and publishing a newspaper, the Republican
Sentinel, he went down to defeat largely because of violence
and opposition from white Republicans to any black candidate.
But at the national level, as a reward for his party loyalty,
he was appointed assessor of internal revenue for the Montgomery
district in 1871, the first black to attain such a high patronage
position in the state.
Using his Montgomery office, in the heart of the Black Belt,
he mounted a campaign for the Second District congressional seat,
received the nomination, and during a period of calm following
the passage of the Enforcement Acts, which provided for federal
suppression of the KKK, defeated the popular one-armed Confederate
veteran William Oates by a vote of 19,000-16,000. Before taking
his seat in Congress, he represented Alabama at the Fifth International
Exhibition in Vienna, Austria, reporting on the state's exhibits.
During his congressional term (1873-1875), Rapier pushed through
a bill to make Montgomery a port of delivery, making federal
funds available to assist in dredging the Alabama River as far
inland as Montgomery. He also supported legislation to improve
education in the South, arguing that federal funds be used to
support public schools, and spoke on behalf of Charles Sumner's
civil rights bill, which became law in 1875.
Seeking a second term, Rapier launched a campaign in 1874, but
renewed violence, intimidation, and voter fraud led to his defeat.
Two years later, in the newly gerrymandered Fourth Congressional
District, which included Lowndes County where Rapier rented several
cotton plantations, he tried again, but fraud and the entry of
Jeremiah Haralson, a black man from Selma, into the 1876 race
resulted in a second defeat. The differences between himself
and Haralson were hard to pinpoint: both advocated civil rights,
voter protection, and leadership roles for blacks. In large measure
their difference was a matter of style. Haralson was young, brash,
outspoken, and rhetorical; Rapier was older, prudent, diplomatic,
and his speeches, while forceful (he was an outstanding orator)
and well organized, had few rhetorical flourishes.
With the "redemption" of the state by conservatives, Rapier
turned his attention to the emigration movement. Appointed collector
of internal revenue for the Second Alabama District in 1877,
he used the office to urge former slaves to leave Alabama and
settle in the West. The black man, he asserted, would never be
accorded equal rights or economic opportunity in the South. He
traveled several times to Kansas, purchased land for a settlement
in Wabaunsee County along the route of the Kansas-Pacific Railway,
gave pro-emigration speeches in Alabama, and testified in Washington,
D.C., before a Senate committee on emigration.
During the early 1880s, as his health began to decline, Rapier
slowed his activity. He had never married, and despite the hectic
pace of his career he was a lonely man who admitted he had few real friends.
By the end of his life, Rapier had come full circle. From seeking
to work within the system to gain equal rights for blacks in
the South, he now advocated that former slaves and their children
should abandon the land of their birth. His efforts, however,
were cut short. Rapier died in Lowndes County, Alabama, of pulmonary
Rapier correspondence can be found in the Rapier-Thomas Papers,
Moorland-Spingarn Collection, Howard University, Washington,
D.C. See also Loren Schweninger, James T. Rapier and Reconstruction
(1978); Eric Foner, Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black
Office Holders during Reconstruction (1993); and Eugene Feldman,
Black Power in Old Alabama: The Life and Stirring Times of James
T. Rapier (1968).
Back to the top
Loren Schweninger. "Rapier, James Thomas";
American National Biography Online Feb. 2000.
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