On this day 142 years ago, Hiram Revels became the first African American member of the United States Senate when he was sworn in to fill a seat that had been left vacant ten years earlier when Mississippi seceded from the Union.
Revels, born free in North Carolina, was an ordained minister who carried out religious work in various Southern and Midwestern states. He actively recruited African American soldiers during the Civil War before settling in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1866.
Revels was elected as a Natchez alderman in 1868, and one year later was elected to a seat on the Mississippi state senate. Reconstruction policies allowed Revels (as well as a few dozen other African Americans) to be elected to various legislative positions.
Although the Mississippi state legislature on January 20th voted 85 to 15 to seat Revels on the U.S. Senate, he faced an uphill battle, with Senate Democrats determined to block his confirmation. (TIME magazine listed Revels on its list of Top 10 Contested Officeholders).
Southern Democrats argued that Revels’ election was null and void given Mississippi’s state of military rule and lack of a civil government. They also claimed he was ineligible for the position because, as an African American, he was not legally recognized as a full citizen until 1868, when the Fourteenth Amendment was ratified.
Revels had been chosen to fill Albert Brown’s seat (set to expire in 1871), while a white man was chosen to fill the seat vacated by Jefferson Davis, President of the Confederacy. The irony was obvious; Nevada Senator James Nye declared:
[Jefferson Davis] went out to establish a government whose cornerstone should be the oppression and perpetual enslavement of a race because their skin different from his. Sir, what a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample underfoot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat on the floor.
While not entirely accurate, given that Revels replaced Brown rather than Davis, this quote pretty well summed up the significance of Revels’ election. Senate Republicans strongly backed Revels, and on February 25, 1870, he was sworn in, following Massachusetts Senator Charles Sumner’s declaration that “The time has passed for argument. Nothing more need be said. For a long time it has been clear that colored persons must be senators.”
When his term expired in 1871, Revels returned to Mississippi and became the first president of Alcorn State University, the nation’s oldest public historically black land-grant institution. He later served as Mississippi’s interim secretary of state, and ultimately returned to ministerial work.
Although his term lasted just over one year, Revels paved the way for future African American legislators. While the path has throughout time been littered with hurdles,—in fact, to date, there have been just six African American United States Senators—Revels’ work stood as an example of racial progress in America and heralded changes to come—including the election of the nation’s first African American president in 2008.
To see a digitized copy of Hiram Revels’ credentials, click here.
For a detailed summary of Hiram Revels’ life and accomplishments, click here.
Last year, Westlaw highlighted significant aspects of Revels’ career: click here.