Faces of Black History – Hiram Rhodes

Hiram R. Revels was born on September 27, 1827, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Revels was a minister who, in 1870, became the first African-American United States senator, representing the state of Mississippi. He served for a year before leaving to become the president of a historically black college. Revels died on January 16, 1901, in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

Revels was born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina, to free people of color, parents of African and European ancestry. He was tutored by a black woman for his early education. In 1838 he went to live with his older brother, Elias B. Revels, in Lincolnton, North Carolina, and was apprenticed as a barber in his brother’s shop. After Elias Revels died in 1841, his widow Mary transferred the shop to Hiram before she remarried. Revels attended the Union County Quaker Seminary in Indiana, and Darke County Seminary in Ohio.

In 1845 Revels was ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME); he served as a preacher and religious teacher throughout the Midwest: in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Tennessee, Missouri, and Kansas. “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. During these years, he voted in Ohio.

He studied religion from 1855 to 1857 at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois. He became a minister in a Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, where he also served as a principal for a black high school.

As a chaplain in the United States Army, Revels helped recruit and organize two black Union regiments during the Civil War in Maryland and Missouri. He took part at the battle of Vicksburg in Mississippi.

In 1870, the state congress selected Revels to fill a vacant seat in the United States Senate. Debate surrounding his eligibility hinged on the 1857 Dred Scott decision, which precluded African-American citizenship. The decision was effectively reversed by the ratification of the 14th Amendment after the Civil War. Democrats argued that Revels did not meet the nine-year citizenship requirement to hold congressional office given his ineligibility for citizenship through the war years. Ultimately, Revels and his Republican allies prevailed by citing Revels’s mixed-race background, and Revels became the first African American to serve in the United States Senate. His appointment was particularly symbolic in that the seat he occupied had previously belonged to Jefferson Davis, the president of the Confederacy.
During his time in Washington, the press praised Revels for his well-crafted speeches and diplomatic approach to a tense congressional environment. His signature issue was civil rights, including the integration of schools and equal opportunities for black workers. Revels urged a moderate view on the restoration of Confederate citizenship. While the Radical Republicans in Congress called for harsh punishments to be meted out to Civil War rebels, Senator Revels took a milder view. He argued for the immediate restoration of citizenship to former Confederates, along with the secure enfranchisement, education and employment eligibility of African Americans.

In addition to his administrative and teaching roles, Revels remained involved with the Methodist Church, continuing to preach publicly until the end of his life. Revels died on January 16, 1901, while attending a meeting of Methodist ministers in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

For more information about Hiram Rhodes, Follow the links below.

Hiram Rhodes & Biography

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