On this day in history in 1870, Joseph Hayne Rainey became the first African-American sworn into the U.S. House of Representatives. Yes, I know, commenter Lucy B. yesterday raised the case of the nation’s first African-American governor, P.B.S Pinchback (bio here, context here). And maybe that would have been the time for this post. But it’s my (partly) blog, so please get off my back.

Rainey’s biography is interesting: born into slavery in 1832; his father, a barber, bought his family’s freedom while Rainey was a child; after being forced by the Confederate government to improve fortifications in Charleston at the start of the Civil War, Rainey escaped to Bermuda, where he waited out the conflict with his wife; he got involved in politics after the South finally admitted defeat.

Equally intriguing, I think, is Rainey’s term of service in congress: from December 12, 1870 to May 22, 1879. Again, 1879. Which means that he won reelection as the so-called Redeemers, the de facto military wing of Dixie’s Democratic Party, overran South Carolina, perpetrating horrors like the Hamburg Massacre.

Nicholas Lemann, in his most recent book (brilliantly reviewed here), argues that the Redeemers effectively won “the last battle of the Civil War,” rolling back Reconstruction and returning Southern society, at least when it came to civil rights, to the antebellum era. It’s not an original thesis; Eric Foner, the unchallenged giant in the field, made the same case almost twenty years ago. But Lemann’s book is short and quite a good read. It pivots on a Reconstruction romance, a move which, though a risky literary conceit, keeps the story clipping along. And the basic argument, again, drawing heavily on Foner, is right.

But there’s no mention of Rainey in Lemann — if I’m not mistaken. And there’s not much to be found about the man in Foner either.

So I’m left with two questions. First, how did someone like Rainey get reelected in a political context dominated by the Redeemers, long after the Republican Party had demonstrated that it wouldn’t fight to protect the rights of African Americans? Rainey’s victory suggests that either he appealed to white voters or that freed people risked life and limb to keep him in the House. Either is interesting. The latter is more likely. And second, where is the Amity Shlaes of Reconstruction studies? Shlaes is the writer whose revisionist history of the New Deal Eric trashed. It’s not that I want more bad books so Eric can write more scathing reviews; it’s that I want more smart people challenging scholarly consensus.

For decades, adherents to the Dunning school dominated Reconstruction discussions. They argued, in essence, that Reconstruction failed because the federal government botched the job. But now Foner, who found that white supremacists, not federal incompetence, scuttled Reconstruction, is virtually unchallenged. Which is a shame. Don’t get me wrong. I agree with Foner. And with Lemann. But while comity is comfortable, creative tension is how we learn new things. Among those things might be how Joseph Rainey managed to keep his seat while other African Americans in South Carolina were losing their lives.