Revels was born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina, of a free father of mixed white and black ancestry, and a white mother of Scottish heritage. He was tutored by a black woman for his early education. In 1838 he went to live with his brother, Elias B. Revels, in Lincolnton, North Carolina, and was apprenticed as a barber in his brother's shop. Elias Revels died in 1841, and his widow Mary turned over her assets to Hiram before she remarried.
Revels attended the Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, and from 1856–57, Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He also studied at a black seminary in Ohio. Revels was ordained a minister in 1845. As a minister in the African Methodist EpiscopalChurch, Revels preached in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, Kansas, and Maryland in the 1850s. "At times, I met with a great deal of opposition," he later recalled. "I was imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence." In 1845 he became a minister in Baltimore, Maryland and set up a private school.
In 1865, Revels returned to his ministry and was assigned briefly to AME churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans, Louisiana. In 1866, he was given a permanent pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, where he settled with his wife and five daughters, continued his ministerial work, and founded schools for black children.
During Reconstruction, Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868, and he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. As John R. Lynch reports, "so far as known he [Revels] had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man, and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence." [Lynch 1913] In January 1870, Revels presented a remarkable opening prayer in the state legislature. As Lynch says, "That prayer—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the [Mississippi] Senate Chamber—made Revels a United States Senator. He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments."
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.
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.)
Revels resigned two months before his term expired and was appointed the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) located in Claiborne County, Mississippi, where he also taught philosophy. In 1873, Revels took a leave of absence from Alcorn to serve as Mississippi's secretary of state ad interim.
He was dismissed from Alcorn in 1874 when he campaigned against the reelection of Governor of Mississippi Adelbert Ames. He was reappointed in 1876 by the new Democratic administration and served until his retirement in 1882.
On November 6, 1875, Revels, as a Republican, wrote a letter to Republican President Ulysses S. Grant that was widely reprinted. Revels denounced Ames and the Carpetbaggers for manipulating the Black vote for personal benefit, and for keeping alive wartime hatreds:
- Since reconstruction, the masses of my people have been, as it were, enslaved in mind by unprincipled adventurers, who, caring nothing for country, were willing to stoop to anything no matter how infamous, to secure power to themselves, and perpetuate it..... My people have been told by these schemers, when men have been placed on the ticket who were notoriously corrupt and dishonest, that they must vote for them; that the salvation of the party depended upon it; that the man who scratched a ticket was not a Republican. This is only one of the many means these unprincipled demagogues have devised to perpetuate the intellectual bondage of my people.... The bitterness and hate created by the late civil strife has, in my opinion, been obliterated in this state, except perhaps in some localities, and would have long since been entirely obliterated, were it not for some unprincipled men who would keep alive the bitterness of the past, and inculcate a hatred between the races, in order that they may aggrandize themselves by office, and its emoluments, to control my people, the effect of which is to degrade them.
Revels remained active in his ministry. For a time, he served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate and taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College), founded in 1866 in Holly Springs, Mississippi, where Revels and his family made their home. Hiram Revels died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.
Revel's daughter Susan edited a newspaper in Seattle, Washington. Horace R. Cayton, Jr., co-author of Black Metropolis, and labor leader Revels Cayton were his grandsons. In 2002, scholar Molefi Kete Asante listed Hiram Rhodes Revels on his list of 100 Greatest African Americans.
- Foner, Eric. Freedom's Lawmakers: A Directory of Black Officeholders during Reconstruction. 1996. Revised. ISBN 0-8071-2082-0.
- Gravely, William B., "Hiram Revels Protests Racial Separation in the Methodist Episcopal Church (1876)". Methodist History, 8 (1970), 13-20.
- Harris, William C., The Day of the Carpetbagger: Republican Reconstruction in Mississippi Louisiana State University Press, 1979
- Haskins, James, Distinguished African American Political and Governmental Leaders Oryx Press. 1999. pp: 216-8.
- Hildebrand, Reginald F., The Times Were Strange and Stirring: Methodist Preachers and the Crisis of Emancipation Duke University Press, 1995
- Thompson, Julius E., Hiram Revels: A Biography (1973) (unpublished dissertation, Princeton University)
- Hiram Rhodes Revels at the Biographical Directory of the United States Congress Retrieved on 2008-11-05
- State Library of North Carolina
- Short biographical sketch at United States Senate site.
- Portrait and biography in Harper's Weekly February 19, 1870, page 116
- February 25, 1870 article on the seating of Hiram Revels in the United States Senate
- Cartoon featuring Hiram Revels and Jefferson Davis, published April 9, 1870, in Harper's Weekly
- African American Registry -- Your Source for African American History at www.aaregistry.com
February 23, 1870 – March 3, 1871
|Preceded by||Albert G. Brown|
|Succeeded by||James L. Alcorn|
|Born||September 27, 1827 |
Fayetteville, North Carolina,U.S.
|Died||January 16, 1901 (aged 73)|
Aberdeen, Mississippi, U.S.
|Spouse(s)||Phoebe A. Bass Revels|
|Alma mater||Knox College|
|Profession||Politician, Barber, Minister,College President|
|Religion||African Methodist Episcopal Church|
|Battles/wars||American Civil War|