The Reconstruction Era, though brief, yielded the first Black selected or elected officials in Congress. During this time 16 Black Americans served in the US Congress; over 600 Black Americans served in state legislatures and more than 1,500 Blacks served as officials at the local level. On February 25, 1870, Hiram Rhoades [Rhodes] Revels of Mississippi became the first Black American to serve in the United States Senate. Revels had been selected to represent his state earlier to fill the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis, but it took until February 25 for the Senate to agree to admit him, a Black man, to be seated. There was significant controversy within the Senate about whether he should be admitted to what had previously been an all-White, all-male body. His tenure was short and ended in 1871.
Revels was born a free Black on September 27, 1822 in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His father was a Baptist minister and his mother was of Scottish descent. Revels came from a long line of free Blacks. He was educated in a school run by a free Black woman, and upon completion of his primary education he worked as a Barber. Then, Revels completed his education at two Seminaries, one in Indiana and one in Ohio in 1844. He was ordained an African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) minister in 1845. Revels married a free Black woman, Phoebe A. Bass, and the two had six daughters.
Revels’ ministry took him to different states and he and his family relocated to Missouri, a state that prohibited by law free Blacks from residing there. He was arrested in 1854, despite his hyper-vigilance and caution in avoiding even the appearance of stirring trouble among the Black slaves. The Revels left the state when he was released.
The Revels family then traveled to Baltimore, Maryland where Revels’ brother, also a minister, lived. From 1855 – 1857, moved to Illinois to study at Knox College on scholarship. He returned to Maryland to help recruit Blacks to fight in the Civil War. Revels served as a chaplain during the War. Then in 1863, Revels established a school for free Blacks in Missouri, the state that had expelled him years earlier.
Revels’ first elected office was a position of Alderperson, in 1868. He then ran for and won a seat in the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. Ultimately, in 1870, Revels was designated to serve out the unexpired term of US Senator from Mississippi.
When he left politics, Revels became the first President of Alcorn College, the first land grant college in the US. He died in January 1901, while attending a religious conference.
Jessie Carney Smith, The Handy African American History Answer Book (2014)
Joan Potter, African American First: Famous, Little-Known, and Unsung Triumphs of Blacks in America (2014)
Charles M. Christian, Black Saga: The African American Experience (1995)
Revels, Hiram Rhodes biography on history.com