This Week’s History:
Hiram Rhodes Revels was born 27 September 1827 in North Carolina. His parents were classified as “free people of color” whose ancestors had gained emancipation before the American Revolution. He apprenticed as a barber and owned his own shop for a while before attending seminaries in Indiana and Ohio and being ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first independent Black denomination in the US, in 1845. He served as a chaplain in the Union Army during the Civil War, before transferring to the United States Colored Troops and organizing two different regiments and seeing action at the Battle of Vicksburg.
After the war, Revels and his growing family settled in Natchez, Mississippi, where he preached, and then entered politics. He was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868, and as the state senator from Adamas County in 1869. The following year, he was elected by the Mississippi state legislature to complete the term of a US Senate seat that had been vacant since the state’s secession prior to the Civil War. Upon arrival in DC, it took several days of bitter debate before he was seated, becoming the first African American to serve in the US Congress. His spent just over a year in the Senate and served on the Education and Labor Committee, as well as the committee that oversaw the administration of Washington, DC. While considered a moderate by many, he was a champion for equality and argued passionately against legislation that would keep the schools of the capital city segregated, arguing that elimination of de jure segregation would weaken ideas of racial prejudice, “Let lawmakers cease to make the difference, let school trustees and school boards cease to make the difference, and the people will soon forget (their prejudice).”
After his service in the Senate, Revels returned to Mississippi where he served as the inaugural president of what is today, Alcorn State University. With the exception of two breaks, one in which he served as the Secretary of State for Mississippi (1873) and another in which he was removed for political reasons (1874-1876), he held that position until his retirement in 1882.
References and Further Reading:
Revels, Hiram Rhodes, US House of Representatives
Philip Dray, Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction through the Eyes of the First Black Congressmen, Mariner Books (2010)
Julius E Thompson, “Hiram Rhodes Revels, 1827-1901, A Reappraisal,” The Journal of Negro History, 79, No. 3, Summer 1994, 297-303.
Richard A Primus, “The Riddle of Hiram Revels,” Harvard Law Review, 119, no. 6 (April 2006), 1681-1734.
“When Black History is Unearthed, Who Gets to Speak for the Dead?” The New Yorker
“Documenting the South with Dust-to-Digital,” The Bitter Southerner
“Civil Rights: All in the Family,” The Texas Observer
“Four New Resources Added to African American Civil Rights Network,” Post and Courier (Kingstree, SC)
“Pete Tijerina Had Two Epiphanies that Transformed Latino Civil Rights,” The Texas Standard
Until next week, take care,
Michele “Scout” Johnson
This series of posts to H-South, “Southern History and Civil Rights in the News,” aims to generate and track informed public discussions of southern history and civil rights. To recommend a reading, please email Dr. Michele Johnson at firstname.lastname@example.org