Hiram Rhodes Revels (September 27, 1827 – January 16, 1901) was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. Since he preceded any African American in the House, he was the first African American in the U.S. Congress as well. He represented Mississippi in 1870 and 1871 during Reconstruction. As of 2009, Revels is one of only six African Americans ever to have served in the United States Senate.
Election to Senate
At the time, the state legislature elected US senators. Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate left vacant since the Civil War. The seat had once been held by Albert G. Brown, who withdrew from the US Senate in 1861.
The election of Revels was met with opposition from Southern conservative Democrats who cited the Dred Scott Decision which was considered by many to have been a central cause of the American Civil War. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868. Because election to the Senate required nine years’ prior citizenship, opponents of Revels claimed he could not be seated, having been a citizen by law for only two years. Supporters of Revels countered by stating that the Dred Scott decision applied only to those blacks who were of pure African blood. Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, and therefore exempt, they said, and had been a citizen all his life. This argument prevailed, and on February 25, 1870, Revels, by a vote of 48 to 8, became the first black man to be seated in the United States Senate.
Revels spoke for compromise and moderation. A vigorous advocate of racial equality, Revels tried to reassure Senators about the capability of blacks. In his maiden speech to the Senate on March 16, 1870, in a plea to reinstate the black legislators of the Georgia General Assembly who had been illegally ousted by white representatives, he said, “I maintain that the past record of my race is a true index of the feelings which today animate them. They aim not to elevate themselves by sacrificing one single interest of their white fellow citizens” (Ploski 18).
He served on both the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia. Much of the Senate’s attention focused on Reconstruction issues. While Radical Republicans called for continued punishment of ex-Confederates, Revels argued for amnesty and a restoration of full citizenship, provided they swore an oath of loyalty to the United States.
Revels (seated) replaces Jefferson Davis (left; dressed as Iago from Othello) in Senate. Harper’s Weekly Feb 19, 1870. Davis had been a senator from Mississippi until 1861.
Revel’s term lasted one year, February 1870 to March 3, 1871. He quietly, persistently—although for the most part unsuccessfully—worked for equality. He spoke against an amendment proposed by Senator Allen G. Thurman (D-Ohio) to keep the schools of Washington, D.C., segregated. He nominated a young black man to the United States Military Academy, although he was subsequently denied admission. Revels was successful, however, in championing the cause of black workers who had been barred by their color from working at the Washington Navy Yard.
Revels was praised in the newspapers for his oratorical abilities. His conduct in the Senate, along with that of the other African Americans who had been seated in the House of Representatives, also prompted a white contemporary, James G. Blaine, to say, “The colored men who took their seats in both Senate and House were as a rule studious, earnest, ambitious men, whose public conduct would be honorable to any race.” Some of the bills Hiram Revels was involved with were granting lands and right of way to aid the construction of the New Orleans and Northeastern Railroad (41st Congress 2nd Session S. 712), levees on the Mississippi river (41st Congress 3rd Session S. 1136), and the incorporation of the Grand Tabernacle of Galilean Fishermen (41st Congress 3rd Session S. 1251.)