September 27, 2013

Happy Birthday: Hiram Revels (1822-1901)


Hiram R. (Rhodes) Revels was born on this date in 1822. He was a Black educator, minister, and politician, and the first African American to serve in the United States Senate.

He was born as a free man in Fayetteville, N.C. Unfortunately, all Blacks in the South, free or slaves, were forbidden to learn to read and write. Revels was secretly taught these basics by a free Black woman. When he was 15, his family moved to Lincointon, N.C., where Revels worked as a barber. In 1844, he moved to Indiana (a free state) and began studying at Beech Grove Seminary, a Quaker school.

At this time Revels became involved with the teachings of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, a significant religious and educational force in the Black community. In 1845, Revels began studying for the ministry in Drake County, Ohio. Later that year, he was ordained as a minister of the AME Church, and made an elder in 1849.

Revels, an itinerant preacher, was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854, for preaching the gospel to Negroes. In the early 1850s, Revels married Phoeba A. Bass, and together they raised six daughters. He attended Knox College in Galesburg, IL, and in 1857, he became a minister became principal of an African American high school in Baltimore, Maryland.

When the Civil War started, He raised two Black regiments during the Civil War and fought at the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi. He established a school for freedmen in St. Louis, in 1863, and worked with the U.S. Provost Marshall to handle the affairs of ex-slaves.

In 1865, Revels joined the Methodist Episcopal (ME) Church, which offered more opportunities for his work in the South. After the Civil War, the Reconstruction Act of 1867 required the Southern states to write new constitutions permitting African Americans to vote and hold public office. In the following year.  African Americans were officially recognized as citizens of the United States as a result of the Fourteenth Amendment to the US Constitution.

Later that year, Revels was appointed for a term on the Natchez city board of aldermen. During the first session of the Mississippi legislature in January 1868, Revels was asked to open the session with a prayer. According to John R. Lynch,
"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."
In 1869, 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.

In January 1870, Mississippi elected Hiram Revels as a U.S. senator. He was seated on February 25, 1870, and held the office until March 3, 1871, becoming the first African American member of Congress. During Revels' short tenure, he introduced several bills, presented a number of petitions, and served on the Committee on the District of Columbia and the Committee on Education. After his term in the senate, Revels became president of Alcorn College from 1871 to 1873.

He then reentered the ministry as the pastor of the Holly Springs, Mississippi, ME church. In 1876, he came back to Alcorn College until 1882, then taught theology at Rust College in Holly Springs. On January 16, 1901, Revels died of a stroke.

To date, six African Americans have served in the United States Senate. Although Revels served in the Senate for just a year, he broke new ground for African Americans in Congress!

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