Reference Entry

Rapier, James Thomas

Loren Schweninger

in African American National Biography

Published in print January 2006 | ISBN: 9780195301731
Rapier, James Thomas

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member of Congress, 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 Congress.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 nineteen thousand to sixteen thousand. 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 tuberculosis.

Reference Entry.  1078 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: History

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