On February 25, 1870 Hiram Revels was seated by the United States Senate as Senator from Mississippi. Two things made the event unusual. First, Revels was Black. Second, he was elected by the Reconstruction legislature of the state to finish the term that Jefferson Davis had vacated to take up the Presidency of the Confederacy.
The confirmation was anything but routine. Democrats rose to argue that because the Dred Scott Decision held that no Black man could be a citizen, that there were no Black citizens prior to the adoption of the 14th Amendment in 1860. The Constitution required a Senator be a citizen for six years and they argued that Revels had only been one for two.
The Republican majority said that would apply only to those of “pure Negro” blood. Revels, who was born a free man in North Carolina in 1827 to a mixed race father and Scottish mother was ruled a citizen and seated.
Revels had apprenticed as a barber to his brother and was gifted his estate by his widow when he died. He used the money to attend Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, Knox College in Illinois, and a Black seminary in Ohio. He was ordained a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church and preached in several states, including Missouri where he was briefly jailed for gathering Blacks to worship, before settling into a Baltimore parish in 1845 and opening a private school.
He became perhaps the leading free black citizen of Maryland. When the Civil War broke out he helped raise two regiments of Black soldiers in Maryland and Missouri and served as a Chaplain. He saw action at Vicksburg.
In 1866 he took up a new pastorate in Natchez and put his efforts into establishing schools for black children. He was elected Alderman in 1868 then to the Mississippi Senate in 1869. He was selected to give the opening prayer at the 1870 session of the legislature and so impressed the members with his eloquence and grace that he was quickly elected to fill the unfinished U.S. Senate term.
In the Senate Revels impressed his colleagues by both his work ethic and his oratory. He served on the Committee for Education and Labor and on the District of Columbia Committee. Although he rose on the Senate floor to defend the black Georgia state legislators who had just been illegally ousted by White representatives, he did not advocate the continuance of a harsh or vengeful Reconstruction policy. He argued that Confederates who swore a loyalty oath should have their citizenship rights restored.
Revels served only a little more than a year. He resigned in March 1871, two months before his term ended to take up the Presidency of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University.) He served there with distinction with two interruptions until his retirement in 1882.
Those two interruptions were instructive. First, he temporarily assumed the duties of Mississippi Secretary of State in 1883. He witnessed the corruption of the administration of Republican Governor Aldebert Ames and wrote a public letter to President Grant accusing him and his “Carpetbagger” administration of corrupting the Black vote for their own private profit. Needless to say, he was fired as college president. But when Democrats returned to power in the state in 1876 they reappointed him to his post despite the fact he remained an avowed Republican.
After his college service Revel returned to the ministry and then taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College) in Holly Springs, Mississippi. He died in 1901.
Despite his accomplishments and illustrious career Revel is now nearly a forgotten figure, a victim of the successful seizure in the early Twentieth Century of American history texts for public schools by Confederate sympathizers and apologists who painted Reconstruction as a bloody oppression and Black political leaders like Revel as ignorant apes and puppets of evil Carpetbaggers.