John Baptist Rayner was born a slave in North Carolina to mixed race parents Kenneth Rayner and Mary Hicks in 1850. His father was a plantation owner and politician, and his mother was a slave. He was taken from his mother at birth and raised by his great grand parents, Henry and Matilda Jett. John Rayner grew up working on his father’s plantation, and after the civil war Kenneth Rayner sent him to be educated at St. Augustine Normal and Collegiate Institute in Raleigh, North Carolina. After college, he moved to Tarboro, North Carolina, where he taught and served in several public offices. He was married to Susan Clark Staten in 1874, and the couple had two children, Mary and Ivan Edward. In 1881, Mr. Rayner led a group of black farm workers to Calvert, Texas. The family settled there, and his wife Susan died shortly after arriving. He was remarried to Clarissa S. Clark, and they had three children, Ahmed Arabi, Loris Melikoff, and Susie Rayner.
In Texas, Mr. Rayner became even more active in politics. He defected from the Republican Party in 1892 to join the newly formed Populist Party, and emerged soon after as one of the party’s most active black spokesmen. He was appointed to the Committee on Platforms and Resolutions at the 1894 party state convention, and also served as a member of the State Executive Committee in 1885 and 1886. He toured the state of Texas and lectured on populism until 1898, and organized colored Populist clubs all over the state. After the Party’s collapse he continued his work in education, serving as fundraiser for black vocational schools Conroe-Porter Industrial College and the Farmers’ Improvement Society School. He died in 1918 of either kidney or liver failure in Calvert.
Jack Abramowitz, “John B. Rayner: A Grass Roots Leader,” Journal of Negro History 36 (April 1951); Greg Cantrell, Kenneth and John B. Rayner and the Limits of Southern Dissent (Urbana: University of Illinois Press, 1993).
University of Washington