#TBT: The first African-American US senator

Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African American elected to the United States Senate in 1870.

Story highlights

  • Revels was born free in North Carolina in 1827
  • He served as an Army chaplain during the Civil War

To celebrate Black History Month, our #TBT series will highlight several African-American politicians who made history. Mississippi's Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African-American to serve in the Senate when he arrived in Washington in 1870.

Revels was born free in North Carolina in 1827. Before becoming a Republican senator, he became an African Methodist Episcopal preacher renowned for his oratory throughout the Midwest -- sounds like another African-American from the Midwest who made some history of his own.
Revels eventually moved to Maryland and served as an Army chaplain during the Civil War.
After the war, Revels continued to serve in the church before moving to Mississippi, where he became a state senator in 1869. The Civil War came to play a major role in Revels' appointment to the US Senate. The legislature chose him to fill one of the seats vacated when the state seceded from the Union.
Southern Democrats met his appointment with resistance. Some tried arguing that Revels hadn't been a citizen long enough to serve in the Senate. You see, because of the Supreme Court's Dred Scott decision in 1857, African-Americans -- even those born free and in the United States -- were not considered citizens until the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Senators need to be citizens for nine years. You do the math.
And if that wasn't enough, they also argued that his selection didn't count because he was chosen before Mississippi was allowed back into the United States in February of 1870. The Senate ultimately had to vote to seat Revels, who served until his term expired in 1871.
As a member of the Education Committee, Revels brought his famed oratory to the Senate, as exemplified in this 1871 debate over school segregation: "Have the colored people done anything to justify the prejudice against them that does exist in the hearts of so many white persons and, generally, of one great political party in this country? Have they done anything to justify it? No, sir."