How a Republican became the First Black Senator in American History

After the Civil War, Republicans pushed through legislation guaranteeing blacks their God-given rights.  People born into slavery were now charting their own course for their lives.  They were entering professions and positions even free blacks never thought possible.  Including the U.S. Congress.

Contrary to popular belief, free blacks lived in the South before the Emancipation Proclamation.  In fact, some of them actually owned slaves.

Rev. Revels, a black Baptist preacher, and his Native American wife of Scottish decent, lived freely in North Carolina.  On September 27, 1827, they welcomed Hiram Rhodes Revels into the family.  Even though he was born free, it was still illegal for him to learn to read and write.  Regardless, Revels received an education, eventually attending two seminaries in the North.  He was ordained in the American Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in 1845.

Just like Frederick Douglass, Revels traveled the country educating blacks and preaching the Gospel.  Missouri, a slave state, prohibited free blacks from living there and the teaching of slaves.  Despite that, Revels took a call to a church in St. Louis knowing the law was rarely enforced.  He stated, “It being understood that my object was to preach the gospel to them, and improve their moral and spiritual condition even slave holders were tolerant of me.”  However, authories arrested him in 1854 for preaching to a black community.

After his release from jail, Revels soon relocated in Baltimore, Maryland.  His brother, Willis, pastored a Presbyterian Church there and Revels joined him.  He both ministered a congregation and principled a local black school.  Before long, Revels desired more education himself.  He attended Knox College in Illinois, thus making him one of a few blacks with some college education at the time.

When the Civil War started, Revels was back in Baltimore, ministering to Madison Street Presbyterian Church as their first black pastor.  He recruited blacks for the Union Army as well as becoming a chaplain for a black regiment with the rank of captain.  He even fought in several battles.

Revels returned to traveling, preaching, and teaching after the war.  Convinced of the importance of education, Revels started a school for the freedmen in St. Louis.  In 1866, he finally settled his wife and six children in Natchez, Mississippi.

During Reconstruction, Republicans controlled not only the U.S. Congress, but also many state legislatures.  As blacks registered almost exclusively as Republican, Democrats not only faced losing their power to the new party, but to blacks and ex-slaves as well.  Before long, Revels entered the political arena, as a Republican, of course.  

Elected to the Mississippi State Legislature, Revels’ ministering skills allowed him to give an inspiring opening day prayer, making an impression on the other lawmakers.  But that was just the beginning.  

Mississippi wanted to re-enter the United States.  Trying to gain favor with Washington D.C., the Republican led state legislature devised a plan to fill their two U.S. Senate seats left vacant upon secession.  Albert Brown’s term had one year left while Jefferson Davis’ term still had five years.  Leaders suggested they fill Brown’s seat with a black man while Davis’, a white.  Black lawmakers agreed, realizing the opportunity would “be a weakening blow against color line prejudice.”  On the other hand, Democrats viewed it as blow against the Republican Party.

After seven ballots in three days, lawmakers elected Revels on January 20, 1870, to fill Brown’s seat with an 85-15 vote.  He immediately departed to Washington.  However, Revels needed to wait to be sworn in until Congress readmitted Mississippi to the Union, which occurred on February 23.  Without hesitation, Senate Republicans started the process to swear Revels in.  Without hesitation, Senate Democrats started the process to stop it.

Over the next two days, Democrats tried everything to keep from verifying Revels.  Democrats argued every angle, from Mississippi’s ineligibility, to claiming Revels had not be a citizen long enough.  Senators were required to be citizens for nine years before serving.  However, the 14th Amendment, correcting the Dred Scott decision by granting blacks citizenship, had only passed two years earlier.

Republicans countered every Democrat excuse, insistent about Revels right to be admitted.  Eventually, Republican Party founder Senator Charles Sumner, took the floor proclaiming:

“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.” 

They took a vote, resulting in a 48-8 victory for Revels down party lines.  With that, on February 25, 1870, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first black man sworn into the U.S. Senate and the first black U.S. Congressman.

Leaders quickly placed him on the Committee of Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia.  He held firm to his beliefs and advocated for equality for all.  Radical Republicans pushed for serve punishment for Southern rebels.  However, as a man of God, Revels practiced what he preached, seeking forgiveness for those who repented.  He supported embracing former Confederate States and restoring their citizenship.  He also advocated personal and civil rights for blacks.

Before the ink dried on the Emancipation Proclamation, talk began of keeping the races separate in schools, businesses, restaurants and the like.  Revels realized the hostility that would foster between blacks and whites.  He rejected any proposal promoting the practice.  Likewise, he also rejected forcing races to mix, knowing that could also lead to resentment and friction.

He helped put the country on an important road in the year he served in the Senate.  Yet his work was not over.  After returning to Mississippi in March of 1871, Revels co-founded Alcorn University and acting as its first president.  He took a break to serve as Mississippi’s Secretary of State, permanently retiring from the school, due to poor health, in 1882.  His ministry and teaching continued until his death on January 16, 1901.

Never feeling the shackles of man’s slavery, Revels preached far and wide on the slavery of sin.  He believed the Gospel and education were the key to freedom for all men.  He looked beyond color and politics, believing in forgiveness and mercy for all.  A principle our country desperately needs for healing today.

But that’s just my 2 cents.

Pamela Adams

Pamela J. Adams maintains which includes her blog Liberating Letters. She is a stay-at-home mom who began researching history, science, religion, and current events to prepare for home schooling. She started Liberating Letters as short lessons for her daughter and publishes them for everyone’s benefit. Pamela has a Degree in Mathematics and was in the workforce for 20 years as a teacher, Marketing Director, Manager and Administrative Assistant. She has been researching her personal family history for over 24 years, publishing 3 books on her family’s genealogy. Follow her @PJA1791 & You can find her books Here.

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