African American Politicians: Hiram R. Revels

Hiram R. Revels was a politican, minister and educator who became the first African American politician to become a United States senator, representing the state of Mississippi.

Hiram Revels was born free on September 27, 1822 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. During Revels' childhood, African Americans in the South, free or slaves, were forbidden to learn to read and write. However, Revels was secretly taught by a free black woman. When he was 15, his family moved to Lincolnton, North Carolina. In this city, Revels worked as a barber. Revels wanted to continue his education and decided to move to Indiana, which was a free state. In 1844, he began studying at Beech Grove Seminary, a Quaker school. It was during this time that he became involved with the teachings of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. The AME church was a significant religious and educational force in the black communities.

In 1845, Revels began studying for the ministry at a black seminary in Drake County, Ohio. He explained in his autobiography, "Here I studied more earnestly than I had done before in order to keep pace with the more advanced students, and I was successful in the undertaking, and greatly benefited by attending that school." Revels became ordained as a minister of the AME Church in 1845. In 1849, he was ordained an elder in the Indiana Conference. As an itinerant preacher, Revels traveled to speak in slave and free states. He would later recall:

"I labored as religious teacher and educator in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, and to some extent in Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, during which, at times, I met with a great deal of opposition. I was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854, for preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence."

In the early 1850's, Revels married Phoeba A. Bass with whom he had six daughters. Although Revels was a successful minister, he desired to continue his education. He attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois for two years. After leaving Knox in 1857, Revels became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland. At the same time, he became principal of an African American high school.

At the beginning of the Civil War, Revels helped organize Union regiments and recruit soldiers of the first colored regiment organized in the state of Maryland. He also established a school for freedmen in St. Louis, Missouri in 1863. He later worked with the U.S. Provost Marshall to handle the affairs of ex-slaves.

In 1865, Revels left the AME church and joined the Methodist Episcopal (EM) Church. This denomination offered more opportunities for Revels to work in the South. Revels became the presiding elder of the ME church, serving the Mississippi Conference.

After the Civil War, former Confederate states faced the task of gaining readmission to the Union. The Reconstruction Act of 1867 required the Southern states to write new constitutions permitting African Americans to vote and hold public office. It required the states to ratify the Fourteenth amendment, and on July 28, 1868, African Americans were officially recognized as citizens of the United States.

In late 1868, Adelbert Ames, Mississippi's provisional military governor, appointed Revels for a term on the Natchez city Board of Aldermen. In 1869, John R. Lynch, a black political figure from Natchez, encouraged him to enter as a candidate for state senator, representing Adams County. Revels accepted the nomination at the Republican caucus in December 1869. During the first session of the Mississippi legislature in January of 1868, Revels was asked to open the session with a prayer. According to John R. Lynch, "That prayer--one of the more impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the Senate chamber--made Revels a United States Senator. He made a profound impression upon all who heard him."

In January 1870, Mississippi impressed Congress by electing Hiram Revels as a U.S. senator. Mississippi was readmitted to the Union, but the New York Herald predicted that Revels would never be allowed to take his Senate seat--especially since Mississippi's most recent senator had been Jefferson Davis, who had walked out to become president of the Confederacy. In fact, political bickering did delay approval of the new senator's credentials. But finally he was seated on February 25, 1870 and held the office until March 3, 1871, becoming the first African American U.S. senator.

During Revels' short tenure as a senator, he introduced several bills, presented a number of petitions, and served on the Committee on the District of Columbia and the Committee on Education. He addressed the Senate on topics such as the readmission of Georgia, the construction of levees in Mississippi and the integration of public schools in the District of Columbia.

After his tenure as U.S. senator, Revels became president of Alcorn College, the first land grant college for black students, and remained there from 1871 to 1873. After leaving Alcorn, Revels reentered the ministry, and served as the pastor of the Holly Springs, Mississippi ME church. In 1876, he again became president of Alcorn College, retiring in 1882. He later taught theology at Rust University in Holly Springs and became presiding elder in the ME church, serving the Upper Mississippi District. On January 16, 1901, Revels died of a stroke while attending a ME conference. He is buried near his home in Holly Springs. "The Autobiography of Hiram Rhoades Revels Together with some Letters by and about Him, " was published in The Midwest Journal, in 1953. He is remembered as a fair politician, respected minister and dedicated educator.

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