Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827-1901) of Mississippi was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate when he filled the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis. Revels served just over a year from February 25, 1870, to March 13, 1871. During an 1871 Senate debate over school segregation in the District of Columbia (over which Congress had jurisdiction) Revels, in a rare speech before his Senate colleagues, urged desegregation of the District’s schools and in the process described the varied prejudices that African Americans faced from their fellow citizens. Revels and fellow supporters lost the debate and the District’s schools remained segregated until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education Decision in 1954. Revels’s speech on the Senate floor appears below.
MR. PRESIDENT, I rise to express a few thoughts on this subject. It is not often that I ask the attention of the Senate on any subject, but this is one on which I feel it is my duty to make a few brief remarks.
In regard to the wishes of the colored people of this city, I will simply say that the trustees of colored schools and some of the most intelligent colored men of this place have said to me that they would have before asked for a bill abolishing the separate colored schools and putting all children on an equality in the common schools if they had thought they could obtain it. They feared they could not; and this is the only reason why they did not ask for it before.
I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase. For example, let me remark that it matters not how colored people act, it matters not how they behave themselves, how well they deport themselves, how intelligent they may be, how refined they may be—for there are some colored persons who are persons of refinement; this must be admitted—the prejudice against them is equally as great as it is against the most low and degraded man you can find in the streets of this city or in any other place.
This Mr. President, I do seriously regret. And is this prejudice right? Have the colored people done anything to justify the prejudice against them that does exist in the hearts of so many white persons, and generally of one great political party in this country? Have they done anything to justify it? No, sir. Can any reason be given why this prejudice should be fostered in so many hearts against them simply because they are not white? I make these remarks in all kindness, and from no bitterness of feeling at all.
Mr. President, if this prejudice has no cause to justify it, then we must admit that it is wicked, we must admit that it is wrong; we must admit that it has no the approval of Heaven. Therefore I hold it to be the duty of this nation to discourage it, simply because it is wicked, because it is wrong, because it is not approved of by Heaven. If the nation should take a step for the encouragement of this prejudice against the colored race, can they have any ground upon which to predicate a hope that Heaven will smile upon them and prosper them? It is evident that it is the belief of Christian people in this country and in all other enlightened portions of the world that as a nation we have passed through a severe ordeal, that severe judgments have been poured upon us on account of the manner in which a poor, oppressed race was treated in this country.
Sir, this prejudice should be resisted. Steps should be taken by which to discourage it. Shall we do so by taking a step in this direction, if the amendment now proposed to the bill before us is adopted? Not at all. That step will rather encourage, will rather increase this prejudice; and this is one reason why I am opposed to the adoption of the amendment.
Mr. President, let me here remark that if this amendment is rejected, so that the schools will be left open for all children to be entered into them, irrespective of race, color, previous condition, I do not believe the colored people will act imprudently. I know that in one or two of the late insurrectionary states the legislatures passed laws establishing mixed schools,* and the colored people did not hurriedly shove their children into those schools; they were very slow about it. In some localities where there was but little prejudice or opposition to it they entered them immediately; in other they did not do so. I do not believe that it is in the colored people to act rashly and unwisely in a manner of this kind.
But, sir, let me say that it is the wish of the colored people of this District, and of the colored people over this land, that this Congress shall not do anything which will increase that prejudice which is now fearfully great against them. If this amendment be adopted you will encourage that prejudice; you will increase that prejudice; and, perhaps, after the encouragement thus given, the next step may be to ask Congress to prevent them from riding in the streetcars, or something like that. I repeat, let no encouragement be given to a prejudice against those who have done nothing to justify it, who are poor and perfectly innocent, as innocent as infants. Let nothing be done to encourage that prejudice. I say the adoption of this amendment will do so.
Mr. President, I desire to say here that the white race has no better friend than I. The Southern people know this. It is known over the length and breadth of this land. I am true to my own race. I wish to see all done that can be done for their encouragement, to assist them in acquiring property, in becoming intelligent, enlightened, useful, valuable citizens. I wish to see this much done for them, and I believe God makes it the duty of this nation to do this much for them; but at the same time, I would not have anything done which would harm the white race.
Sir, during the canvass in the state of Mississippi I traveled into different parts of that state, and this is the doctrine that I everywhere uttered: That while I was in favor of building up the colored race I was not in favor of tearing down the white race. Sir, the white race need not be harmed in order to build up the colored race. The colored race can be built up and assisted, as I before remarked, in acquiring property, in becoming intelligent, valuable, useful citizens, without one hair upon the head of any white man being harmed.
Let me ask, will establishing such schools as I am now advocating in this District harm our white friends? Let us consider this question for a few minutes. By some it is contended that if we establish mixed schools here a great insult will be given to the white citizens, and that the white schools will be seriously damaged. All that I ask those who assume this position to do is to go with me to Massachusetts, to go with me to some other New England states where they have mixed schools,** and there they will find schools in as prosperous and flourishing a condition as any to be found in any part of the world. They will find such schools there; and they will find between the white and colored citizens friendship, peace and harmony. When I was on a lecturing tour in the state of Ohio, I went to a town, the name of which I forget. The question whether it would be proper or not to establish mixed schools had been raised there. One of the leading gentlemen connected with the schools in that town came to see me and conversed with me on the subject. He asked me, “Have you been to New England, where they have mixed schools?” I replied, “I have sir.” “Well,” said he, “please tell me this: does not social equality result from mixed schools?” “No, sir; very far from it,” I responded. “Why,” said he, “how can it be otherwise?” I replied “I will tell you how it can be otherwise, and how it is otherwise. Go to the schools and you see there white children and colored children seated side by side, studying their lessons, standing side by side and reciting their lessons, and perhaps in walking to school they may walk together; but that is the last of it. The white children go to their homes; the colored children go to theirs; and on the Lord’s day you will see those colored children in colored churches, and the white family, you will see the white children there, and the colored children at entertainments given by persons of their color.” I aver, sir, that mixed schools are very far from bringing about social equality.
Then, Mr. President, I hold that establishing mixed schools will not harm the white race. I am their friend. I said in Mississippi, and I say here, and I say everywhere, that I would abandon the Republican party if it went into any measures of legislation really damaging to any portion of the white race; but it is not in the Republican party to do that.
In the next place, I desire to say that school boards and school trustees and railroad companies and steamboat companies are to blame for the prejudice that exists against the colored race, or to their disadvantage in those respects. Go to the depot here, now, and what will you see? A well-dressed colored lady with her little children by her side, whom she has brought up intelligently and with refinement, as much so as white children, comes to the cars; and where is she shown to? Into the smoking car, where men are cursing, swearing, spitting on the floor; where she is miserable, and where her little children have to listen to language not fitting for children who are brought up as she endeavored to bring them up to listen to.
Now, sir, let me ask, why is this? It is because the white passengers in a decent, respectable car are unwilling for her to be seated there? No, sir; not as a general thing. It is a rule that the company has established, that she shall not go there.
Let me give you proof of this. Some years ago I was in the state of Kansas and wanted to go on a train of cars that ran form the town where I lived to St. Louis, and this rule prevailed there, that colored people should go into the smoking car. I had my wife and children with me and was trying to bring up my children properly, and I did not wish to take them into the smoking car. So I went to see the superintendent who lived in that town, and I addressed him thus: “Sir, I propose to start for St. Louis tomorrow on your road, and wish to take my family along; and I do not desire to go into the smoking car. It is all that I can do to stand it myself, and I do not wish my wife and children to go there and listen to such language as is uttered there by men talking, smoking, spitting, and rendering the car very foul; and I want to ask you now if I cannot obtain permission to take my family into a first-class car, as I have a first-class ticket?” Said he: “Sir, you can do so; I will se the conductor and instruct him to admit you.” And he did admit me, and not a white passenger objected to it, not a white passenger gave any evidence of being displeased because I and my family were there.
Let me give you another instance. In New Orleans, and also in Baltimore, cities that I love and whose citizens I love, some trouble was raised some time ago because colored people were not allowed to ride in the streetcars. The question was taken to the courts; and what was the decision? That the companies should make provision for colored passengers to go inside of the cars. At first they had a car with a certain mark, signifying that colored people should enter. I think the words were, in Baltimore, “Colored people admitted into this car”; and in New Orleans they had a star upon the car. They commenced running. There would be a number of white ladies and white gentlemen who wanted to go in the direction that his car was going, and did not want to wait for another; and notwithstanding there was a number of colored persons in the car, they went in and seated themselves just if there had not been a colored person there. The other day in Baltimore, I saw one of these cars passing along with the words, “Colored persons admitted into this car.” The car stopped, and I saw a number of white ladies and gentlemen getting in, and not one colored person there. It was the same way in New Orleans. Let me tell you how it worked in New Orleans. The company finally came to the conclusion that if white persons were willing to ride with them without a word of complaint, they could not consistently complain of colored persons going into cars that were intended for white persons; and so they replaced their rule and opened the cars for all to enter. And ever since that time all have been riding together in New Orleans,† and there has not been a words of complaint. So it will be I believe in regard to the school. Let lawmakers cease to make the difference, let school trustees and school boards cease to make the difference, and the people will soon forget it.
Mr. President, I have nothing more to say. What I have said I have said in kindness; and I hope it will be received in that spirit.