He was born a free African American in Florence, Alabama to John H. Rapier, a prosperous local barber. Private tutors educated the Rapier children. In 1856, he was sent to Buxton, Ontario, Canada with his brother John. They lived with their Uncle Henry K. Thomas, who had property in the settlement and attended the Buxton Mission School.
James Rapier became the first recorded teacher of the SS #13 Buxton School in 1861, as documented in The Ontario Archives (Superintendent Reports). He returned to Tennessee in 1865, where he was a cotton planter and an advocate for black voting rights. He was appointed a notary public by the Governor of Alabama in 1866. He assisted as a member of the first Republican convention held in Alabama and was one of the committee that framed the platform. In 1867, James participated in the convention called to rewrite the state constitution. He was appointed an assessor of internal revenue in 1871. He was appointed State commissioner to the Vienna Exposition by the Governor of Alabama in 1873 and commissioner on the part of the United States to the World’s Fair in Paris.
James Rapier was elected as a Republican to the Forty-third Congress (March 4, 1873-March 3, 1875). There were unlimited quotable references to support James Rapier's accomplishments and ideals. During the race for congress, "Rapier was described, even by his opponents, as an impressive, effective, and forceful speaker." "One conservative newspaper was almost effusive in its praise, a fine looking man, knowledgeable and quick-witted." While in Congress, he proposed the creation of a land bureau to give Western lands to freedmen. He also proposed $5 million for Southern schools. Except for service as collector of internal revenue in Alabama's second district, Rapier did not again hold public office. But he continued as an active labour organizer, seeking to unite poor urban workers and rural sharecroppers, and he wrote prolabour editorials. James Rapier died on May 31, 1883 and was buried in Calvary Cemetery, St. Louis, Missouri.
Things to Remember While Reading James Rapier's Speeches on the Civil Rights Bill:
The struggle for racial equality was a difficult and step-by-step battle in the years after the American Civil War (1861–65). In three hard-won constitutional amendments passed over a five-year period, African Americans were freed from slavery, granted citizenship and equal legal treatment, and given the right to vote (although this last amendment applied to men only). But in many aspects of everyday life, African Americans remained second-class citizens. African Americans and whites attended separate schools, worshipped in separate churches, and buried their dead in separate cemeteries. African Americans were limited to the least-desirable cars on any train, and often they were turned away from restaurants and hotels.
Given on June 9, 1874
(A U.S. representative from Alabama talks about the discrimination he faces as a black man.)
"I feel this humiliation very keenly; it dwarfs my manhood, and certainly it impairs my usefulness as a citizen.…"
Excerpt from James Rapier's Speech on the Civil Rights Bill of 1875
I must confess it is somewhat embarrassing for a colored man to urge the passage of this bill, because if he exhibit an earnestness in the matter and express a desire for its immediate passage,straightway he is charged with a desire for social equality, as explained by the demagogue and understood by the ignorant white man.
But then it is just as embarrassing for him not to do so, for, if he remain silent while the struggle is being carried on around, and for him, he is liable to be charged with a want of interest in a matter that concerns him more than any one else, which is enough to make his friends desert his cause.…
Let me cite a case. Not many months ago Mr. [Francis] Cardozo, treasurer of the State of South Carolina, was on his way home from the West. His route lay through Atlanta. There he made request for a sleeping-berth. Not only was he refused this, but was denied a seat in a first-class carriage, and the parties went so far as to threaten to take his life because he insisted upon his rights as a traveler. He was compelled, a most elegant and accomplished gentleman, to take a seat in a dirty smoking-car, along with the traveling rabble, or else be left, to the detriment of his public duties.
Speeches of African-American Representatives
Addressing the Civil Rights Bill of 1875
Representative James T. Rapier, responding on February 4, 1875, to an assertion by Representative White of Alabama, that blacks in Alabama did not support the Bill:
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Mr. RAPIER. I have sought the floor today for one purpose only. I had hoped that there would be no further discussion upon this bill, and I would not have spoken now but for the fact that I think my colleague from Alabama [Mr. White] has not properly represented the sentiments of the people of my State. I ask the Clerk to read just what my colleague did say.
The Clerk read as follows:
He was a southern man, born and raised on southern soil, and desired to secure the highest advantages that could be attained; and peace and harmony secured. It was urged, he said, that there was a prejudice on the part of the white man against the colored man. He would say to the gentlemen they were as much prejudiced against the whites in behalf of the blacks. It was not prejudice; it was pride of race and pride of country. The substitute he offered did not come from him. It came from higher authority--the colored people of Alabama.
Mr. RAPIER. That I deny, Mr. Speaker. The last time the colored people in Alabama were heard from upon this subject they expressed their opinions in a platform one clause of which I ask the Clerk to read.
The Clerk read as follows:
As citizens of the United States and of the State of Alabama, we claim all the civil and political rights, privileges, and immunities secured to every citizen by the Constitution of the United States and of the State of Alabama; and we will be satisfied with nothing less.
Mr. RAPIER. That class of people commissioned me to speak for them upon this subject in this House. If any man in the State of Alabama is acquainted with the colored people, I hold that I am the man. And when my colleague [Mr. White] says that the "colored people of Alabama" instructed him to offer such a bill as that, I have only to say that he has placed them in a very false position.
The platform which he had read from the Clerk's desk yesterday, and which he said was the platform of the republican party in the State of Alabama, was never framed or adopted by them. They never read that platform and never saw it until it was read in the republican convention of the State of Alabama, and there were not more than eighteen colored men in the convention at the time when that platform was adopted. The reason why the colored men there did not oppose that platform was that the republicans in the northern part of Alabama said that unless such a platform was put forth they were afraid they could not secure the white vote of that portion of the State. Therefore we allowed them to have their platform; and that platform was sent forth to the people of Alabama, and they repudiated it. I am unqualifiedly opposed to the White substitute, but favor the Senate bill as it stands.
I have no compromise to offer on this subject; I shall not willingly accept any. After all, this question resolves itself into this: either I am a man or I am not a man. If I am a man, I am entitled to all the right and privileges and immunities that any other American citizen is entitled to. If I am not a man, then I have no right to vote, I have no right to be here upon this floor; or if I am tolerated here, it is in violation of the Constitution of our country. If the negro is not a man, and has no right to vote, then there are many occupying seats here in violation of law.
Sir, if any man is entitled to the protection of the laws of his country, I hold that the colored man is that man. When he had no particular reason for liking this Government; when your Government was threatened with destruction, when those who had always been fostered and cared for by the Government hesitated as to what they should do, when this great Republic was in the act of going down, then it was that the negro came forward, made bare his breast and in it received the thrusts of the bayonets aimed at the life of the nation. And now, you hesitate to say whether I shall be regarded as a man or not in this country, being a representative of that race.
[Here the hammer fell.]
Mr. RAPIER. In the name of my constituents, I demand the passage of the Senate bill.