Minister, abolitionist, legislator. Cain was born a free person of color in Greenbriar County, Virginia, on April 12, 1825. He grew to maturity in Ohio, where he attended Wilberforce University. Beginning in the late 1840s, Cain served as an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) minister. By the late 1850s he was an active abolitionist and worked with famous activists such as Frederick Douglass and Martin Delaney. During the Civil War, Cain was pastor of a church in Brooklyn, New York. In May 1865, to his great delight, he was transferred to South Carolina as superintendent of AME missions for the state. Cain was responsible for building Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, which is considered the state’s most historic AME congregation. By 1866 its membership had grown to more than two thousand. Cain approached his responsibilities with considerable zeal, organizing churches throughout the countryside. Contemporaries credited him with much of the church’s success in the immediate post–Civil War era.
Cain was also motivated by a deeply held black nationalist ideology and sought every opportunity to give black Carolinians greater control over their lives. In 1866 he bought the South Carolina Leader newspaper, becoming perhaps the first African American newspaper editor in South Carolina. After Cain changed its name to the Missionary Record, the paper covered religion, literature, and politics, becoming an important voice for black Carolinians.
From his earliest days in South Carolina, Cain was involved in politics. He was an honorary delegate to the November 1865 Colored Peoples Convention in Charleston, which was one of the earliest forums where black Carolinians demanded equal civil and political rights. In 1867 he helped organize the state Republican Party, and he later served as party chairman for Charleston County. As a delegate to the 1868 constitutional convention, Cain was an outspoken advocate of universal male suffrage. He worked hard to promote landownership among the landless. He opposed the convention’s call for a debt moratorium, instead believing that planter indebtedness would force sales to the working class. Cain was an architect of the South Carolina Land Commission, designed to help small farmers purchase land, and later served on that commission. Cain also purchased land north of Charleston, which he resold to freedmen. The settlement evolved into the black town of Lincolnville. Cain served in the S.C. Senate from 1868 to 1870 and was twice elected to Congress, serving from 1873 to 1875 and from 1877 to 1879. In state politics he was considered a reformer who frequently railed against corruption within Republican ranks. While he was in Congress, his most public efforts were on behalf of the Civil Rights Act of 1875, the country’s first federal public accommodations law.
The demise of Reconstruction in South Carolina took Cain’s career in new directions. In 1877 he encouraged some black Carolinians to seek their fortune in Africa and supported the Liberian Exodus movement. In 1880 he was among the first three men elected bishops in the AME Church from the South, and he was given responsibility for Louisiana and Texas. In Texas he served as founder and president of Paul Quinn College in Waco. Cain moved to Washington, D.C., in 1884 and died there on January 18, 1887.
Bailey, N. Louise, Mary L. Morgan, and Carolyn R. Taylor, eds. Biographical Directory of the South Carolina Senate, 1776–1985. 3 vols. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 1986.
Foner, Eric. Freedom’s Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. Rev. ed. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1996.
Holt, Thomas. Black over White: Negro Political Leadership in South Carolina during Reconstruction. Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1977.
Mann, Kenneth E. “Richard Harvey Cain, Congressman, Minister and Champion for Civil Rights.” Negro History Bulletin 35 (March 1972): 64–66.
Powers, Bernard E., Jr. “‘I Go to Set the Captives Free’: The Activism of Richard Harvey Cain, Nationalist Churchman and Reconstruction-Era Leader.” In The Southern Elite and Social Change, edited by Randy Finley and Thomas DeBlack. Fayetteville: University of Arkansas Press, 2002.