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Revels, Hiram Rhoades (1827?–1901)

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Hiram Rhoades Revels was the first African American United States Senator, filling the seat left vacant by Jefferson Davis in 1861 when Mississippi seceded from the Union.

Born in the 1820s in Fayetteville, North Carolina, Hiram Revels was the son of free parents of mixed African American and Native American ancestry. Revels moved with his family to Lincolnton, North Carolina in 1842, where he became a barber. Two years later he left the South and enrolled at Beech Grove Seminary, a Quaker institution near Liberty, Indiana. In 1845 he entered Darke County (Ohio) Seminary for Negroes.  The same year Revels was ordained a minister in a Baltimore African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In the early 1850s he married Phoebe A. Bass of Zanesville, Ohio, and together they had six children.

Hiram Revels traveled across Ohio, Indiana and Illinois, Missouri, Maryland, Kentucky and Tennessee, preaching to both free and enslaved African Americans.  He moved his ministry to an AME church in St. Louis in 1853, but moved again after only a year, due to a dispute with the local bishop.  Revels ultimately left the AME denomination and enrolled at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois for two years (1857-1858).  He then returned to Baltimore where he was appointed the first African American pastor of the Madison Street Presbyterian Church, a position he held until 1863.  Between 1863 and 1865 Revels served as a chaplain in the Union Army and helped recruit and organize black Union Army work battalions in Maryland and Missouri.  He also founded a black high school in St. Louis and several churches.

After the Civil War, he continued traveling, preaching in Leavenworth, Kansas; Louisville, Kentucky; and New Orleans, Louisiana. On June 1868, Revels became the presiding elder at a church in Natchez, Mississippi, and shortly thereafter he was appointed to the city board of aldermen.

As a prominent, highly educated African American, Revels was encouraged by many to seek higher office. He ran for the Adams county seat in the state senate in late 1869 as a Republican and easily won as a result of the large majority of African Americans who had recently gained the right to vote during Reconstruction.

Supported by Mississippi’s black legislators, Revels was elected in January 1870 by the Republican-dominated Mississippi state legislature to fill the unexpired US Senate seat of Jefferson Davis.   After acrimonious debate on February 25, 1870, over whether to accept his credentials, the United States Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Revels.  One month later he took his seat among the senators.  Although Revels served only until the end of the term on March 3, 1871, he nonetheless became the nation’s first African American senator.  

Hiram Revels introduced three bills while serving as senator of Mississippi, one of which passed.  The successful bill was a petition for the removal of political and civil disabilities from an ex-Confederate official. As a proponent of amnesty for ex-Confederates, Revels received some criticism from the black community.  

After completing his term Revels returned to Mississippi. He was a co-founder of Alcorn University 1872.  Revels served as its first president of the University until 1873 when he was appointed Mississippi’s Secretary of State.  Revels returned to the Alcorn presidency shortly after, but came into conflict with Republican Governor Adelbert Ames who asked him to resign. Student and faculty supported Revels as president however, and he was reappointed in 1876.  Revels resigned again in 1882 as a result of poor health and the institution’s financial troubles. Revels moved to Holly Springs, Mississippi where he continued to teach and minister. He died of a stroke on January 16, 1901 while attending the Upper Mississippi Conference of the A.M.E. Church then meeting in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

Sources:
“Hiram Rhoades Revels,” in Rayford W. Logan and Michael R. Winston, eds., Dictionary of American Negro Biography (New York: W.W. Norton, 1982);
“Hiram Rhoades Revels,” in Encyclopedia: The State Library of North Carolina, http://statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us/nc/bio/afro/revels.htm; Kenneth H. Williams, "Revels, Hiram Rhoades" in Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Evelyn Brooks Higginbotham, eds.,  African American National Biography Oxford African American Studies Center, http://www.oxfordaasc.com.offcampus.lib.washington.edu/article/opr/t0001/e0482.

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University of Washington, Seattle

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