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Rapier, James Thomas (1837-1883)

James Thomas Rapier was a Republican representative from the state of Alabama elected to the 43rd United States Congress. Rapier was born on November 13, 1837 in Florence, Alabama and attended high school in Nashville, Tennessee. In 1856 at the age of 19 he traveled to attend the King School in Buxton, Ontario, Canada, an experimental black community. There, along with his education he experienced a religious conversion and decided to devote his life to helping southern blacks. Rapier also attended the University of Glasgow and Franklin College in Nashville before receiving a teaching certificate in 1863.

Rapier moved to Maury County, Tennessee and in 1865 started campaigning for African American suffrage. He delivered the keynote address at the Tennessee Negro Suffrage Convention in Nashville that same year. When the movement saw no success he took up cotton farming in his home town of Florence, Alabama and became successful.

After the U.S. Congress passed the Reconstruction Acts in 1867, Rapier was elected a delegate to the first Republican state convention in Montgomery, Alabama and helped draft the Party’s platform. Rapier adopted a moderate political stance, which earned him respect from many Republicans. To some white southern Democrats, however, his engagement in politics at all was considered unacceptable.  In 1868 Rapier was driven from his home by the Ku Klux Klan and remained in seclusion for almost a year.

In 1870 he resumed his public life when he became the Republican nominee to be Secretary of State in Alabama.  Rapier was the first African American to run for statewide office, but was defeated. In 1871 he was appointed Assessor of Internal Revenue in the Montgomery district.

Rapier meanwhile sought to build a political base of support.  He joined the emerging black labor union movement and attended three national Negro Labor Conventions between 1869 and 1872. In 1870 he was elected vice president of the National Negro Labor Union and started the Southern branch of the NNLU in Alabama –