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HIRAM RHODES REVELS

February 28th, 2010

Reverend Hiram Rhodes Revels

In this blog we are going to consider Hiram Rhodes Revels, born in 1827 and died in 1901. Although he was not among our country’s founders and his time represents a much later period in our country, he is the fruit of a continuing Christian influence in our nation. Although his name is not familiar to most, he was a man of high honor, fighting for his people and this nation.

Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, and was a free man of African-American and American Indian descent. In his pursuit to gain an education, he left North Carolina and first attended the Union County Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana, and from 1856–57, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He also studied at a black seminary in Ohio. Revels was ordained a minister. As a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, Revels preached in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Maryland in the 1850s. “At times, I met with a great deal of opposition,” he later recalled. “I was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.” In 1845 he became a minister in Baltimore, Maryland and set up a private school.

With the outbreak of the Civil War, Revels helped raise two African-American Union regiments from Maryland. He then moved to Missouri where continued recruiting of African-Americans for the Union Army. He was then selected to be Union Army Chaplain for a regiment of African-Americans from Mississippi. He, at one point, was the provost marshall at Vicksburg, where he took part in one the bloodiest and most prolonged sieges along the Mississippi River.

After the war and in 1865, Revels returned to his ministry and was assigned briefly to AME churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1866, he was given a permanent pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, where he settled with his wife and five daughters, continued his ministerial work, and founded schools for black children.

During Reconstruction, Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868, and he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. As John R. Lynch reports, “so far as known he [Revels] had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man, and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence.” [Lynch 1913] In January 1870, Revels presented a remarkable opening prayer in the state legislature. As Lynch says, “That prayer—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the [Mississippi] Senate Chamber—made Revels a United States Senator. He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments.”

Mississippi, being readmitted to the Union, had an open Senate seat that was last held by Jefferson Davis who had resigned to become President of the Confederate States of America. At the time, the state legislature elected US senators. Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate left vacant since the Civil War. The seat had once been held by Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the US Senate in 1861.

The election of Revels was met with opposition from Southern conservative Democrats who cited the Dred Scott Decision which was considered by many to have been a central cause of the American Civil War. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Because election to the Senate required nine years’ prior citizenship, opponents of Revels claimed he could not be seated, having been a citizen by law for only two years. Supporters of Revels countered by stating that the Dred Scott decision applied only to those blacks who were of pure African blood. Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, and therefore exempt, they said, and had been a citizen all his life. This argument prevailed, and on February 25, 1870, Revels, by a vote of 48 to 8, became the first black man to be seated in the United States Senate. Revels was praised in the newspapers for his oratorical abilities. His conduct in the Senate, along with that of the other African Americans who had been seated in the House of Representatives, also prompted a white contemporary, James G. Blaine, to say, “The colored men who took their seats in both Senate and House were as a rule studious, earnest, ambitious men, whose public conduct would be honorable to any race.”

After finishing her term in the United States Senate, Revels was named President of Alcorn College, the first college for African-Americans in Mississippi. Revels remained active in his ministry. For a time, he served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College), founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Revels and his family made their home. Hiram Revels died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

It was by prayer that Revels was elevated to the United States Senate. It was by faith that he fought for justice for his people and mercy in reconciliation with the former Confederate states. His life was an expression of self-sacrifice and dedication to the spiritual and educational advancement of African-Americans.

Compiled from these sources:
1. U.S. Senate: Art & History Home; Photo Exhibit at www.senate.gov
2. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiram_Rhodes_Revels
3. On This Day, Dr. Paul E. Barkey, self-published 2009