There have only been nine black U.S. Senators in American history. Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first.
Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first black member of the United States Senate and U.S. Congress overall. He was a black man. He was a Civil War veteran who had fought for the Union. Did I mention he represented Mississippi?
After the Civil War, the former Confederate states’ governments were dissolved and the states were occupied by the U.S. military. This was called Reconstruction (1865-1877)— not very much was reconstructed.
During this time, black citizens outnumbered white citizens in many southern states. With the passage of the Reconstruction Amendments (13th, 14th, and 15) black (male) citizens were, for the first time, full and complete participants in the American Dream.
13th Amendment: Outlawed slavery.
14th Amendment: Equal protection under the law.
15th Amendment: Suffrage for all male citizens
Hiram Rhodes Revels was a traveling African Methodist Episcopal preacher.
He fought for the Union army during the U.S. Civil War and served as chaplain for two black regiments.
In 1866, he was given a pastorship with a Methodist Episcopal church in Natchez, Mississippi. While there, he was elected as an alderman for the town and also helped build schools for black children.
In 1869, he was elected to the Mississippi State Senate. At this time, U.S. senators were elected by their state legislatures (the 17th amendment was passed in 1913). The Mississippi State Senate had to fill vacancies left when Mississippi had seceded from the United States.
In a show of solidarity from white Republicans, they elected Hiram Rhodes Revels to a term of a fraction of a year. Some racists argued that no black men were citizens prior to the 1868 ratification of the 14th amendment, thus H.R. Revels had not been a citizen for the required nine years. The argument was nonsense, and Revels was confirmed as a senator on a strict party line vote.
As a senator, Revels argued against the continued punishment of the former Confederacy. Unsurprisingly, his career in the U.S. Senate was not very productive. He advocated for the integration of Washington, DC schools and attempted to integrate the United States Military Academy.
He resigned from the Senate to become the president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University).
He died in 1901.
Why he should be remembered: Hiram Rhodes Revels broke one of the greatest color barriers in United States history— a barrier so large that it was rebuilt after Reconstruction to be damn near impenetrable. There have only been nine black U.S. Senators in American history. Mississippi has never had another black senator since the end of Reconstruction. Mississippi’s first black Representative left office in 1883. The next black Representative assumed office 104 years later. There have only been two since the end of Reconstruction.
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Keep coming back for another article each day of Black History Month.
Photo— Flickr/ TradingCardsNPS