By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA
Reverend Richard Harvey Cain was born to free parents in 1825 in what is now West Virginia. Raised in Ohio, he learned to read at a young age and went to Wilberforce University in Ohio, which was partially founded by a black Charlestonian named Bishop Daniel Alexander Payne. After the Emancipation of former slaves, he was sent to Charleston, SC in 1865.
After the attempted Denmark Vesey Slave Rebellion of 1822, the Hempstead AME Church of Charleston’s East Side, where Vesey was a Class Leader (adjunct minister, sort of like a deacon), was burned by a mob and blacks were forbidden to hold their own church services until after the end of slavery, so when Rev. Cain arrived in Charleston, he took the old Hempstead congregation and reestablished them on Calhoun Street. He gave them the Hebrew name for “God is with us,” which is “Emanuel,” and since it was the Mother of the new AME churches in Charleston, this is how the church got its name.
Rev. Cain did not just stay in the pulpit and preach. He also founded the black town of Lincolnville, SC to encourage independence, and the first black newspaper in SC, “The South Carolina Leader” (a few copies exist at the Avery Institute and Charleston County Library). Additionally, he was a congressman from SC during the Reconstruction era where blacks voted and held public office in the Southern states between 1865 and 1877.
While in Congress, Rev. Cain spoke for the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, which would have ended segregation in public places. According to the Congressional Record of January 10, 1874, Rev. Cain stated in Congress -“You have brought us here, and here we are going to stay. We are not going one foot or one inch from this land. Our mothers and our fathers and our grandfathers and great-grandfathers have died here. Here we have sweated. Here we have toiled. Here we have made this country great and rich by our labor and toil. It is mean in you now to want to drive us away, after having taken all our toil for two hundred years. Just think of the magnitude of these gentlemen’s hearts. After having taken all our toil for two hundred years; after having sold our wives and children like so many cattle in the shambles; after having reared the throne of great king cotton on our labors; after we have made their rice-fields wave with luxuriant harvests while they were fighting against the Government and keeping us in bondage–now we are free they want us to go away. Shame on you!” The bill was passed, but was declared unconstitutional by the Supreme Court in 1883, revived by President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and passed by President Lyndon B. Johnson months after President Kennedy was assassinated.
After African Americans were massacred by a Klan-like group called the Red Shirts (which included Ben Tillman, the future architect of Jim Crow in SC) in Hamburg, SC on July 8, 1876, Rev. Cain led 1,000 blacks in a march to the Charleston City Market on Market St. Rev. Cain preached these words that would appear in the Charleston News and Courier of July 18, 1876- “We meet as citizens to express in a peaceable way our opinion of a great outrage. The colored men wanted peace; they wanted the right to go where they pleased and do what they pleased, so long as they did no wrong. Suppose the colored men should organize bands in Charleston and Combahee to kill the white men and burn up the houses, would there be peace? No no! It remains, therefore, for us to unite in denouncing this outrage, and to demand that Governor Chamberlain shall bring these men to justice and the perpetrators to punishment.”
The Reconstruction era ended after extended violence and mob retaliation in the South along with political compromises, and men such as Benjamin Tillman took office and deprived African Americans of their voting rights until the Civil Rights movement. There were many other great heroes of this period such as Rev. Richard Harvey Cain whose stories need to be exposed to the youth of today as a source of inspiration in our troubled times.