The first African American to serve on the U.S. Congress was Hiram Rhodes Revels. He was elected to the United States Senate from Mississippi in 1870 until 1871. Revels served as a chaplain during the American Civil War, having assisted in organizing two regiments of the United States Colored Troops.
On September 27, 1827, Hiram Rhodes Revels was born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina. A local black woman tutored and educated him. At eleven years old, the young Revels moved to Lincolnton, North Carolina where he lived with his older brother, Elias B. Rhodes in 1838. However, Elias died only a few years later in 1841. Hiram had been an apprentice for his brother at his barber shop, and when he died, Elias’s wife gave him the shop.
Revels was ordained as a minister in 1845 in the African Methodist Episcopal Church. All throughout the Midwest in Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee, he taught as a religious teacher and a preacher. In 1854, he was imprisoned for “preaching the gospel to Negroes”. At Knox College, located in Galesburg, Illinois, he studied religion and then went to Baltimore, Maryland to become a minister in a Methodist Episcopal Church. Also in Baltimore, he worked as a principal at a black high school.
During the Civil War, he was a chaplain in the U.S. Army. He took part in recruiting two regiments of black men for the Union in Maryland and Missouri. Revels also fought in Mississippi at the Battle of Vicksburg.
When he left the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1865, he joined the Methodist Episcopal Church instead. For short periods of time, he was assigned to churches located in Kansas and Louisiana. Then in 1866, he was called to be a permanent pastor in Natchez, Mississippi and he finally settled down with his wife and their five daughters. In Natchez, he became an elder in the Mississippi District of the Methodist Church as he continued to work for the church while also establishing schools in the area for black children.
As Reconstruction began in 1868, Revels was elected as alderman in Natchez. The following year, he was then elected to the Mississippi State Senate for Adams County. He also presented the opening prayer to the state legislature in January of 1870.
It was common at the time for most states to elect members from the state legislature to the U.S. Senate. The Mississippi State Senate elected Hiram Revels to finish out a ter from one of the state’s vacant seats in 1870. The vote was 81 to 15, he won by a landslide. The seat had previously been held by Albert G. Brown, but Brown had withdrawn from the Senate when the state seceded from the Union.
Southern Democrats in the Senate opposed Revels as soon as he arrived in the capital. The Senate debated it for two days, with the Democrats using the ruling of the Supreme Court Dred Scott Decision that African Americans were not citizens, despite the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868. In the end, they came to the conclusion that Reconstruction overturned the decision made by the Supreme Court decades before.
Then, on February 25, 1870, Hiram Revels became the first African American to ever be seated in the U.S. Senate. Democrats had voted against him, but he still received a vote of 48-8, with Republicans in favor of him.
During his time as Senator, he advocated for compromise and moderation. Revels was a staunch supporter of racial equality. He also made sure that the other men in the Senate saw that African Americans were just as capable as they were. He was a member of the Committee of Education and Labor and of the Committee on the District of Columbia. Radical Republicans in the Senate argued that they should punish those who had once been apart of the Confederacy. Revels disagreed, believing everyone should be given amnesty and returned their full citizenship.
Revels only served on the Senate for a year. His term came to an end on March 3, 1871. While he had tried to campaign for equality, he was, for the most part, unsuccessful. He was praised by the press in the north for his great ability when it came to public speaking.
When he left the Senate, Revels became the first president of the Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is now knowns as Alcorn State University, in Claiborne County, Mississippi. The school is historically a black college. He also taught philosophy at the school. In 1873, he took a leave of absence to serve ad interim as Mississippi’s Secretary of State. However, when he campaigned against Governor Adelbert Ames of Mississippi’s reelection, he was dismissed from Alcorn. When the school was taken over by a Democratic administration in 1876, he got his position back and kept it until he retired in 1882.
Revels continued to remain an active church member. In Holly Springs, Mississippi, he was a minister at a Methodist Episcopal church. He worked as an editor for a newspaper for the Methodist Church called the Southwest Christian Advocate. In Holly Springs, he taught theology at the local Shaw College (today Rust College).
On January 16, 1901, Hiram Rhodes Revels died in Aberdeen, Mississippi while at a church conference. He was buried in Holly Springs in the Hillcrest Cemetery.