In celebration of African American History Month, our picture of the week is of Hiram Revels, the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. Revels was born a free man in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1827. He was first apprenticed as a barber, learning the trade from an older brother, and later became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, preaching throughout the Midwest. Later, Revels recruited two Maryland regiments and served as a chaplain in the Army during the Civil War. After the end of the Civil War, Revels helped to establish schools for African Americans and served as a pastor in Natchez, Mississippi. He was soon elected to the position of alderman, and subsequently, Mississippi state senator. The election of Revels to the United States Senate occurred prior to the adoption of the 17th Amendment, so it fell to the state legislature to elect Revels to the upper house of Congress.
Southern Democrats refused to seat Revels, arguing not only that Mississippi was under military rule at the time of his election, but also that Revels could not satisfy the nine years of citizenship required of a U.S. Senator, because, in light of the precedent established by the Dred Scott decision, he could not have been considered a citizen until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Ultimately, the matter was decided when the Senate voted to seat Revels on February 25, 1870. During his time in office, Senator Revels was recognized as a political moderate and a gifted orator who worked to secure civil rights for African Americans in the areas of education and work. He also strove to put aside the bitter sectional conflicts of the Civil War and reunite the nation by supporting the removal of political disabilities for selected former Confederates, provided they consented to an oath of loyalty. After retiring from the Senate, the Senator served as the president of the Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) and Secretary of State ad interim of Mississippi.