1st Black Senator Hiram Revels Takes Office

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On this day in in 1870 Hiram Revels became the first African American to take the oath of office as a Senator in the United States. Born in 1827 in North Carolina, he later moved to Indiana to attend a Quaker seminary and then Illinois to attend Knox College. In 1845 he was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME). During the 1850s he moved around the Midwest preaching, living in more than seven states in that period. Revels helped raise two black regiments for the Union during the Civil War and took part in the battle of Vicksburg, Mississippi. After the war he returned to preaching, and the AME gave him a permanent pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi in 1866. He took advantage of his stay to found black schools and in 1868 he was elected alderman. The next year he was elected to represent the county, giving him a seat in the Mississippi State Senate. Prior to this election, Revels had never been politically involved, however, he gave an eloquent opening prayer to the Senate in 1870 which made a profound impression on his fellow Senators. Since at that time the state legislature voted to elect U.S. Senators, Revels’ prayer swayed the congressmen to elect him to finish the term for one of the vacant Senate seats that was left over from when the state seceded from the Union. When his credentials arrived at the U.S. Senate, it stirred an uproar as many of the Southern Democrat Senators did not wish to see a black man as their peer. They stated that the Constitution requires nine years of citizenship prior to serving as Senator. Citing the Dredd Scott decision as evidence that blacks had not been citizens before the war, the Senators argued that African Americans only gained citizenship with the passage of the 1866 Civil Rights Act; thusly, by 1870 Revels had only been a citizen for four years and was barred from becoming a U.S. Senator. Republican Senators countered that the Dredd Scott decision did not apply to multiracial people, so Revels’ mixed ancestry (his mother was white) meant that he had been a citizen all of his life. The Republican argument prevailed and by a vote of 48 to 8, he was confirmed as the first black United States Senator. Revels believed in racial equality, however, he also spoke for compromise and moderation and was not part of the Radical Republican Reconstruction Senate bloc. While in the Senate, he worked against an amendment to keep the school system in Washington, D.C. segregated; he nominated a black youth to the U.S. Military Academy (he was ultimately denied admission); and he helped workers return to their jobs at the Washington Navy Yard after they were barred because they were black. He was often lauded for his speaking abilities, both in newspapers and by his Senate colleagues. In 1871 he finished his brief term and returned to Mississippi, becoming the first President of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University). He worked at the college on and off until his retirement in 1882, at which time he returned to his ministry. Revels is one of only six African Americans ever to have served in the U.S. Senate.

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