James T. Rapier Biography

Civil Rights Activist, U.S. Representative (1837–1883)
James T. Rapier served in Congress as a U.S. Representative from Alabama. He was one of only three black congressmen during Reconstruction and helped to pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875.


James T. Rapier was born in 1837 in Florence, Alabama. The son of a successful African-American barber, Rapier became a U.S. Representative in 1872. One of only three black congressmen during Reconstruction, Rapier helped pass the Civil Rights Act of 1875. Rapier also worked as a labor organizer and edited the Montgomery Republican State Sentinel. He died in 1883.

Early Life and Education

James Thomas Rapier was born on November 13, 1837 in Florence, Alabama, to John H. and Susan Rapier. Already parents to three sons, the Rapiers were among a very small number of African Americans who were not enslaved in the American South in the decades before the Civil War. His father, John Rapier, was a successful barber.

After his mother’s death during childbirth in 1841, Rapier went to live with his grandmother. When he was 19, his father sent him to Canada to live in a black community made up of "fugitive" slaves. In his time there, he earned a teaching degree, taught for a while and then moved to Nashville, Tennessee. After the Civil War, Rapier returned to Alabama.

Advocate for Civil and Economic Rights

Rapier became an advocate for African American civil rights. He served as a delegate to Alabama’s 1867 constitutional convention, where he promoted an alliance between formerly enslaved people and poor whites in order to transform the political landscape of the region. Rapier also played a leadership role in forming the state's Republican Party. He wrote its first platform, which called for labor unions, a free press and public education.

Rapier also advocated for the economic empowerment of black communities. In 1869, he represented Alabama at the National Negro Labor Union Convention, later becoming vice president of the new organization. He helped found the Labor Union of Alabama and urged the establishment of a federal agency to help freedmen acquire farmland.

In addition, Rapier created the Montgomery Republican State Sentinel, Alabama’s first newspaper owned and operated by African Americans.

U.S. House of Representatives

In 1872, Rapier was elected to represent Alabama’s second congressional district in the U.S. House of Representatives. (He was the state’s second African-American representative.) While serving in Congress, Rapier eloquently supported the Civil Rights Bill of 1875. In a speech to the House, he described the contradiction between his serving in the national legislature at the same time that “there is not an inn between Washington and Montgomery, a distance of more than a thousand miles, that will accommodate me to bed or meal.” The final Civil Rights bill, with its provisions for equal access to public transportation and education removed, passed.

The Ku Klux Klan threatened Rapier when he ran for reelection in 1874. During the campaign, Klan violence resulted in more than 100 deaths and virtually eliminated the black vote. A conservative white Democrat won Rapier’s seat in the House.

Later Life

In 1878, after his term in Congress, Rapier accepted an appointment as an Internal Revenue Service collector, a post he held (despite opposition) until shortly before his death. James T. Rapier died of pulmonary tuberculosis on May 31, 1883 in Montgomery, Alabama. 

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