Full Name: Hiram Rhodes Revels
September 27, 1827 – January 16, 1901
Hiram Revels was born into a free family in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Slavery was widespread in this part of the country but some of Revel’s ancestors had been free dating back to the American Revolutionary War.
During the time of Revel’s early childhood, it was against the law in North Carolina for Black children to be educated, even if they were free. But, he was fortunate to receive his early education from a local free Black woman. At around the age of 11, Hiram Revels was sent to live with his older brother Elias in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Elias had apprenticed as a barber and owned a barbershop within which he offered Hiram an apprenticeship.
When Elias died in 1841, ownership of the barbershop was transferred to 14-year-old Hiram. Shortly after, Hiram left Lincolnton to study at the Union Literary Institute in Indiana followed by the County Seminary in Ohio. At the age of 18, Hiram was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church.
Hiram Revels married Phoebe A. Bass in the early 1850s and the union produced six daughters. Throughout the 1850s Revels traveled around the Midwest working as a pastor and teacher. He had to walk a fine line with both his presence and teachings as slave states were wary of free Black people, especially those who might incite unrest or rebellion among the enslaved. This period was very busy for Revels as he managed to be arrested for preaching, relocated to preach in Baltimore, and attended college in Illinois for two years.
With the start of the Civil War, Revels contributed to the organization of two Black volunteer regiments that served in the Union Army. Personally serving as a chaplain in Mississippi, Revels was present at the Battle of Vicksburg. And following emancipation, he helped to establish schools for the newly freed slaves.
Following the end of the Civil War, Revels returned to traveling around the country serving as pastor at various churches in several states. Education had been forbidden for enslaved Black people and severely restricted for free Black people. As the South entered Reconstruction, the education of Black people was identified as a key issue. Thus through Revels’ involvement with education, he was reluctantly pulled into post-war politics.
Settling in Natchez, Mississippi with his family, Hiram Revels was elected as an alderman in 1868. He eventually ran for and was elected to the Mississippi state senate and became one of the state’s new 30 plus Black legislators. During the opening session, Hiram Revels led the legislators in a rousing prayer that brought him to prominence. In attempts to be moderate and appease White Southerners, Revels supported efforts to restore the right to vote and hold office for former members of the Confederacy.
Two Senate seats had been left vacant by Confederate senators whose states had seceded from the Union. With efforts underway to reunite the Union, it was decided that the seats would be filled for the remainder of their terms. In 1870, Revels was nominated and elected to fill the seat with the shorter term which would end in 1871.
But, upon arriving in Washington, Revels could not be seated as a senator until Mississippi was formally reunited with the Union. Also, some Democrats attempted to block Revels being sworn in by referring to the Dred Scott decision and its implication of Revels not being a citizen. It took various machinations including referring to Revels mixed ancestry to finally get him sworn in and seated as a senator.
Hiram Revels served in the Senate for one year during which time he attempted to desegregate schools and railroads in addition to obtaining voting rights, education, and employment opportunities for Black people. Following the end of his term in the Senate, Revels declined various political positions and instead became president of what is now Alcorn State University in Mississippi. Political issues led to his dismissal and reinstatement during the mid-1870s but he eventually retired from his position in 1882.
- “First African American Senator.” 2019. U.S. Senate: First African American Senator. January 24, 2019. https://www.senate.gov/artandhistory/history/minute/First_African_American_Senator.htm.
- “Hiram R. Revels.” 2019. Biography.com. A&E Networks Television. June 28, 2019. https://www.biography.com/political-figure/hiram-r-revels.
- “Hiram Rhodes Revels.” 2019. Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation. October 7, 2019. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Hiram_Rhodes_Revels.
- “REVELS, Hiram Rhodes.” n.d. US House of Representatives: History, Art & Archives. Accessed October 28, 2019. https://history.house.gov/People/Listing/R/REVELS,-Hiram-Rhodes-(R000166)/.
- The Editors of Encyclopaedia Britannica. 2019. “Hiram Rhodes Revels.” Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, inc. August 28, 2019. https://www.britannica.com/biography/Hiram-Rhodes-Revels.
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