Hiram Revels: First African American Senator

“HON. H. R. REVELS, UNITED STATES SENATOR ELECT FROM MISSISSIPPI,” Harper’s Weekly, February 19, 1870, p. 116

Two days after Mississippi is readmitted to the Union on February 23, 1870, Hiram Revels, a schoolmaster and preacher, becomes the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate. 

Hiram Rhodes Revels was born in September 1827 of free parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina and was of mixed African and Croatan Indian descent. His journey to Washington, D.C., in some respects, is a familiar one. He worked an array of jobs, finding a calling as a minister and educator, and served as a chaplain during the Civil War. Several years after leaving the army, he was elected to public office, first as an alderman and then in the Mississippi State Legislature. 

When Revels takes the Senate oath of office, he ironically fills the seat of the last man to serve as a senator from Mississippi—Jefferson Davis—who nine years prior had dramatically exited the Senate Chamber after announcing the state of Mississippi’s separation from the United States. The seats belonging to Mississippi’s senators had been empty since then. Revels faced ugly and racist opposition in the national press. The February 26, 1870 New York Herald called out the symbolism as an act of “poetical retribution,” that a black Republican would occupy Davis’ old office was a representation of not only the interests of Mississippi, but also the transformation of America during reconstruction. 

Administering the oath of office to Hiram Revels. Congressional Globe, 41st Congress, 2nd session, 1568 (1870)

At the time, Senate Democrats objected to seating Revels [Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 2nd Sess. 1503 (1870)], pointing to the Constitution which specified that no person may be a senator who has not been a citizen of the U.S. for at least nine years. The Democrats argued that before the ratification of the Fourteenth Amendment in 1868, Revels had not been a citizen on account of the Supreme Court’s 1857 decision in Dred Scott v. Sanford. Thus, even if Revels were a citizen in 1870, he had held that status for only two years. After three days of heated and highly publicized debate, the Senate voted to admit Revels. 

“WASHINGTON, D.C.—ADMINISTERING THE OATH TO HIRAM REVELS…,” Frank Leslie’s Illustrated Newspaper, March 12, 1870, p. 425

While in office, Revels had his detractors who claimed he was mired in a scandalized past, while others viewed him as a very reasonable politician during a contentious time in the U.S. Congress. He favored reinstating black legislators ousted in Georgia; amnesty for former Confederates who swore loyalty to the Union; and school desegregation in the District of Columbia. In 1871, after only one year in office, he left the Senate to be the first president of Mississippi’s Alcorn State University. 

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One Comment

  1. JERRY J CARBONE
    February 18, 2020 at 4:59 pm

    Read the New York Times essay on Revels by the eminent American historian, Eric Foner, “There Have Been 10 Black Senators Since Emancipation
    Elected 150 years ago, Hiram Revels was the first,” https://www.nytimes.com/2020/02/14/opinion/sunday/hiram-revels-reconstruction-150.html

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