Obit of the Day (Historical): Sen. Hiram Revels (1901)
Hiram Revels was born a free man, which was unheard of for anyone of African descent in 19th century North Carolina. Educated by a private tutor, even though it was illegal in his home state for a black child to receive an education, Mr. Revels was given all the advantages his mother and father could provide.
He headed north to attended seminary and became an African Methodist Episcopal (AME) pastor. It was during this time that he married Phoebe Bass, a free black woman from Ohio, and then began his intinerant preaching career.
The Revels traveled through several states including stops in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, and Missouri to set up churches and preach to free and enslaved congregants. In Missouri, where it was illegal for free blacks to live because of a fear of inciting riots, Mr. Revels set up an AME church in St. Louis in 1853. A year later he was arrested for preaching to a black congregation.
Following his release he received a commission to serve at an AME church in Baltimore, Maryland where he stayed until the beginning of the Civil War in 1861. Once hostilities broke out between the North and the South, Mr. Revels helped to recruit two all-black regiments and became an Army chaplain seeing action in Mississippi in Jackson and Vicksburg.
Following the war, Mr. Revels and his family moved to Natchez, Mississippi where he worked not only as a pastor but to build schools provide other resources for newly freed slaves. His success in this area led to his recruitment into Mississippi state politics by John R. Lynch, the first black Speaker of the House in the state’s history.
In 1868, Mr. Revels was elected to the Mississippi State Senate. According to stories, Mr. Revels elevated his status amongst his colleagues with an opening prayer for the body in January 1869. (There are no copies of the prayer to be found during my research for this post.) Mr. Lynch said that the prayer helped earn Mr. Revels election to the U.S. Senate.
In 1870, it was decided to appoint two new U.S. Senators to the seats left vacant by the resignations of Albert Brown and Jefferson Davis in 1861 upon the secession of Mississippi. One seat was set to expire in 1871, the other in 1875. In a compromise between Republicans and Democrats it was agreed that a black candidate would be appointed to Sen. Brown’s vacancy, set to expire a year later, while a white candidate would be placed in Sen. Davis’ seat. In January 1870, Hiram Revels was chosen as the first black U.S. Senator in American history.
At the end of the month, Mr. Revels traveled to Washington, D.C. to take his seat. First he had to wait until Mississippi was re-admitted to the Union, which happened in February 1870. Then he presented his letter of appointment to the Senate on February 23, 1870. But Democrats in the chamber held up his appointment.
According to Article I, Section 3, Clause 3, to be a U.S. Senator you must be at least 30 years of age and a citizen for at least nine years. Democrats argued that the 1857 Dred Scott decision by the U.S. Supreme Court declared that blacks were not citizens. Therefore Mr. Revels only became a citizen after the passage of either the 1866 Civil Rights Act or the 14th Amendment to the Consitution in 1868. Either way, Mr. Revels was not a citizen for nine years.
Republicans argued that Mr. Revels was, in fact, a citizen who voted in elections in Ohio, and regardless the Civil War and its results gave all black men and women rights as citizens retroactively from their birth in the United States.
On February 25, 1870, with a 48-8 vote (every Senate Democrat voted against), Mr. Revels was appointed to the U.S. Senate. During his short term of office Mr. Revels fought for the desegregation of Washington, D.C. schools and pushed for amnesty of all former Confederates willing to take a loyalty oath.
The following year Mr. Revels resigned his Senate seat and took his seat as the first president of Alcorn State University. The university was named for former Confederate officer James L. Alcorn who funded the school in order that blacks in Mississippi would have opportunities for higher education. In fact, Mr. Alcorn*, who served as Republican governor of Mississippi from 1870 to 1871, was selected to replaced Mr. Revels in the U.S. Senate. (Later Mr. Revels would support Mr. Alcorn in another run for governor in 1873 against Radical Republican and carpetbagger, Albert Ames. When Ames won, Mr. Revels was removed from the presidency of Alcorn State. He regained the position two years later when Democrats regained control of the state legislature.) Mr. Revels retired from Alcorn State in 1882.
Hiram Revels died on January 16, 1901 at the age of 73.
(Image of Hiram Revels, taken between 1860 and 1875 by either Matthew Brady or Levin Handy is in the Library of Congress, LC-BH63-1823, and courtesy of wikimedia.org)
* The only other Confederate officer to join the Republican party after the war was General James Longstreet, who would endorse Ulysses S, Grant for president and even serve as ambassador to the Ottoman Empire.