Hiram Rhodes Revels: First African American U.S. Senator

Written on by Kathryn Lerro

As I considered what to write about for Black History Month, I decided I wanted to spotlight an African American who had lived an outstanding life, but was relatively unheard of today.

I found just such a person: Hiram Rhodes Revels. On February 25th, 1870 (150 years ago this week), Revels became the United States’ first black senator. Amazingly, this took place just 7 years after the Emancipation Proclamation set American slaves free.  Also amazing, he was elected in the South (representing the state of Mississippi), and he was a Republican.

At a time in U.S. history when African Americans were struggling for freedom and equality, Hiram Revels was unwilling to let anyone or anything stand in the way of his desire to improve the lives of others and to make our young nation a better place. In addition to his election as a senator, his list of accomplishments is staggering:

  • He apprenticed as a barber
  • Was educated at a racially integrated school (founded by abolitionist Quakers)
  • Attended seminary at Knox College
  • Was ordained, then served as a minister in Illinois, Kansas, Louisiana, Mississippi, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee
  • Established a school for freedmen (former slaves) in St. Louis, Missouri
  • Served as the principal of a black high school in Baltimore
  • Served as a chaplain during the Civil War
  • Helped recruit and organize two black Union regiments during the Civil War, and took part in the battle of Vicksburg

Although Revels was fortunate to have been born to a free family, he did not make his way through life without opposition. As an example: In 1854, while serving as a minister in Missouri, he was imprisoned for preaching to slaves, because the state government feared he’d encourage the slaves to rebel against their masters. Not one to complain, his upbeat remark concerning his incarceration was that he had not been subjected to violence.

After the Civil war ended, Revels and his wife and their five daughters settled in Mississippi where Revels served as a pastor, an alderman and a founder of schools for black children. In January of 1870, Revels was invited to give the opening prayer at a meeting in the Mississippi Senate Chamber. His prayer was so eloquent and inspirational, and his list of accomplishments so impressive, that—at that very meeting—he was nominated and elected to the U.S. Senate by a vote of 81 to 15.

When he arrived in Washington to begin his senate career, Revels faced opposition from Southern democrats who didn’t want to see a black man in the U.S. Senate. After two days of heated debate, an historic vote of 48-8 allowed Revels to take his rightful seat. Following is an account which appeared in the New York Times, in reference to Revel’s swearing-in:  

“The ceremony was short. Mr. Revels showed no embarrassment whatever, and his demeanor was as dignified as could be expected under the circumstances. The abuse which had been poured upon him and on his race during the last two days might well have shaken the nerves of any one.”

During his Senate career, Hiram Revels opposed segregation, promoted civil rights, and supported amnesty for former confederate soldiers. But perhaps his greatest role as a senator was that of a trail-blazer, defying the odds and the naysayers, and paving the way for others to follow.

Revels chose to leave the Senate after only serving one year in order to accept the position as the first president of (what later became) Alcorn University, the first land-grant school for African-Americans, because his passion for black education was greater than his desire to serve on a national level.  

Hiram Rhodes Revels continued his educational and religious pursuits until the day he died, in 1901, at the age of 73. He was a man of faith, brilliance and integrity, and left behind a legacy of excellence.  

Image courtesy of Library of Congress; rendering by Currier and Ives, 1872. Hiram Rhodes Revels appears at far left.






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