America’s First Black Senator

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Hiram Rhodes Revels

Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827-1901) was the first African American to serve in the U. S .Senate. Some historians have a problem with this. It was the Reconstruction era and after the Civil War ended the “carpetbaggers” came South to promote black people. In other words, poor Hiram was probably only a figurehead to shove the post Civil War slavery message down the throats of southerners.

Senator Revels Background

Revels only represented Mississippi for two years during the Reconstruction era. He was born in Fayetteville, NC, to a free father who had some white ancestry. His mother came from a background of Scottish families. He was tutored to learn English and read and write. In the late 1830s he took off for Lincolnton, NC, to be with his brother Elias and worked in his brother’s barber shop.

When Elias Revels died in 1841, his widow, in an unusual move, turned over all her inherited assets to Hiram before she remarried. This enabled the young Hiram Revels to take courses at Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, then Knox College in Galesburg, IL.

Hiram Revels Enters the Ministry

After studying at a black Ohio seminary Hiram decided to be a minister and was ordained in 1845. That gave him the platform that other blacks have used to rally political support. While serving in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels preached in Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas and Maryland during the 1850s.

During the Civil War, as chaplain, he helped raise two black Union regiments. Not only did he give the financial support necessary to raise two regiments, but he also served in the Battle of Vicksburg.

Revels Family Settles in Natchez

When he became a minister in Baltimore, MD, Revels also set up a private school. After a couple of other post-war assignments, Revels took a pastorship in Natchez, MS, where he was joined by his wife and five children, and founded schools for black children.

He was elected a Natchez alderman in 1868 and the following year was elected to represent Adams Co. in the State Senate. An observer noted that Revels had never voted, never attended any public meetings and had never made a political speech. He was, however, described by a contemporary as a Republican man with potential and it was discerned that he was a man of ability with more than average intelligence.

Revels Turning Point

At the beginning of 1870 Revels presented an astounding opening prayer in the state legislature. Some say that remarkable prayer is what made Revels a Senator. All who sat in the Mississippi Senate chamber that day immediately recognized Revels as a man of great ability headed toward superior attainments.

In those days senators were not elected, they were appointed. However, many legislators balked and challenged his selection on the grounds that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868.

The issue of Revels’ citizenship came up, as it did when America elected its first black President. Revels’ mother was white and of Scottish ancestry, which technically made him a citizen. On Feb. 25, 1807, Revels became the first Afro-American to serve in the U.S. Senate.

Revels After the Senate

Following his service in the U. S. Senate, Revels continued in his ministry. He became editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College), founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, MS, where Revels and his family lived. Hiram died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, MS.

Revel’s daughter Susan edited a newspaper in Seattle. Horace R. Cayton Jr., co-author of Black Metropolis, and labor leader Revels Cayton, were his Revels’ grandsons.

Sources:

  1. Lynch, John R., The Facts of Reconstruction; online at Project Gutenberg
  2. Biographical Directory of the United States Congress (2008 edition)