Hiram Rhodes Revels, a native of North Carolina, was the first black man to serve in the U.S. Senate. Revels was elected from his adopted state of Mississippi and served for approximately one year.
Born in 1827, Revels was educated in Indiana and attended Knox College in Illinois. Ordained a minister in the African Methodist Church, he worked among black settlers in Kansas, Maryland, Illinois, Indiana, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Missouri before settling in Baltimore in 1860. There he served as a church pastor and school principal.
During the Civil War, Revels helped organize a pair of Negro regiments in Maryland, and in 1863 he went to St. Louis to establish a freed-men school and to carry on his work as a recruiter. For a year he served as chaplain of a Mississippi regiment before becoming provost marshal of Vicksburg.
Revels settled in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1866 and was appointed alderman by the Union military governor of the state. In 1870 Revels was elected to the U.S. Senate to replace Jefferson Davis, the former president of the Confederacy. Revels’ appointment caused a storm of protest from white southerners. Nonetheless, Revels was allowed to take his seat in the Senate.
As a U.S. senator, Revels quickly won the respect of many of his constituents for his alert grasp of important state issues and for his courageous support of legislation that would have restored voting and officeholding privileges to disenfranchised southerners. He believed that the best way for blacks to gain their rightful place in American society was not through violent means, but by obtaining an education and leading an exemplary life of courage and moral fortitude. He spoke out against the segregation of the Washington, D.C., public school system and defended the rights of black men who were denied work at the Washington Navy Yard because of their race.
Revels left the Senate in 1871 after serving one full term. He was named president of Alcorn University near Lorman, Mississippi. He left Alcorn in 1873 to serve as Mississippi's secretary of state on an interim basis. He returned to Alcorn in 1876 and became editor of the SouthWestern Christian Advocate, a religious journal. He retired from Alcorn University in 1882.
Revels lived in Holly Springs, Mississippi, during his later years and taught theology at Shaw University. He died on January 16, 1901.
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