Today we honor and celebrate Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American member of the United States Congress. Serving two years as a Republican Senator from Mississippi, he is only one of six African-American to ever serve as a U.S. Senator.
Revels was born a free black in Fayetteville, NC in 1827. He received his early education through a tutor before moving in with his brother at the age of 11 to be apprenticed as a barber. His brother died in 1841 and Revels was granted his assets by the widow. He later attended two seminaries and Knox College. He was ordained a minister in 1845 and preached in half a dozen states as an AME pastor. He was briefly imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for “preaching to Negroes.” He became a minister in Baltimore and set up a school.
When the Civil War arose, Revels enlisted as a chaplain and helped raise two black regiments, one in Maryland and one in Missouri. After the war, he took two church postings before settling permanently with his family in Natchez, MS, where he also founded schools for African-American children. He took on a handful of local political postings and was elected to the Mississippi Senate in 1869. Impressing his peers with his eloquence, Revels was elected by the Mississippi Senate to fill the U.S. Senate seat vacated during the war by Albert G. Brown, because African-Americans still were not allowed to vote in the United States. He served for two years, pushing hard for racial equality while recognizing the need for a strategic, moderate approach to achieving it. Just before his term expired, he accepted the post of President of Alcorn State University where he also taught philosophy. Other than two brief breaks, he served in this post until his retirement in 1882. He remained active as a minister and teacher until his death in 1901. The United States shall forever be in Revels’ debt for serving his country while being denied basic human rights.