Rayner, John Baptis (1850–1918)

By: Gregg Cantrell

Type: Biography

Published: 1976

Updated: January 19, 2021

John Baptis (J. B.) Rayner, leader in the People's party in Texas, son of White planter Kenneth Rayner and slave Mary Ricks, was born a slave on November 13, 1850, in Raleigh, North Carolina. He was raised by his great-grandparents Henry and Matilda Jett and worked on his father's plantation. Kenneth Rayner, a Whig congressman and leader of the Know-Nothing party, helped John secure a college education at Shaw University and St. Augustine's Normal and Collegiate Institute. In the early 1870s John B. Rayner moved to Tarboro, North Carolina, where he taught and, as a Republican during Reconstruction, held a series of local political offices, which included constable, magistrate, and deputy sheriff. He married Susan Clark Staten in 1874, and they had two children. In 1881 he led a migration of black farmworkers to Robertson County, Texas, and settled in Calvert, where he taught school, preached, and dabbled in politics. Shortly after his arrival in Texas his wife died. He then married Clarissa S. Clark, with whom he had three children.

Rayner's first recorded political activity came in the 1887 statewide prohibition campaign, during which he earned regional notoriety as an proponent of prohibition. In 1892 he joined the fledgling Populist party, and by 1894 he had become its best-known black spokesman. At the party's 1894 state convention delegates elected him to a member-at-large position on the state executive committee and to the platform committee, where he used his influence to move the party toward stronger positions on black rights. Until 1898 Rayner traveled the state incessantly, lecturing and organizing on behalf of the People's party. He earned a reputation as one of the great orators of his day, Black or White. After the demise of the Populist movement and his return to the Republican party, Rayner split his time between fund-raising for black education, writing newspaper essays, and campaigning against prohibition (a reversal of his earlier position). He served as chief fund-raiser for two black vocational schools: Conroe College and the Farmers' Improvement Society School; he was president of the former. In the age of disfranchisement and Jim Crow, he worked publicly for accommodation and curried the favor of the lumber magnate John Henry Kirby, who contributed to his educational projects and occasionally employed Rayner as a labor recruiter. Privately, however, Rayner wrote bitterly of "the White man's hallucinated idea of his race superiority." Rayner was active in the Texas Law and Order League and was grand master of the United Brothers of Friendship. Toward the end of his life he wrote editorials, was active in community work, and pressed for African Americans to be in the armed forces during World War I. He died of liver or kidney failure at his home in Calvert on July 14, 1918.

Jack Abramowitz, "John B. Rayner: A Grass-Roots Leader," Journal of Negro History 36 (April 1951). Gregg Cantrell, Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993). Roscoe C. Martin, The People's Party in Texas (Austin: University of Texas, 1933; rpt., University of Texas Press, 1970). Douglass Geraldyne Perry, Black Populism: The Negro in the People's Party in Texas (M.S. thesis, Prairie View University, 1945). John B. Rayner Papers, Dolph Briscoe Center for American History, University of Texas at Austin.

  • Education
  • Activism and Social Reform
  • Advocates
  • Peoples
  • African Americans
  • Politics and Government
Time Periods:
  • Progressive Era

The following, adapted from the Chicago Manual of Style, 15th edition, is the preferred citation for this entry.

Gregg Cantrell, “Rayner, John Baptis,” Handbook of Texas Online, accessed August 11, 2022, https://www.tshaonline.org/handbook/entries/rayner-john-baptis.

Published by the Texas State Historical Association.

January 19, 2021

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