A freedman his entire life, Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. With his
The FIRST Black Senator; a RARE photograph and great portrait by Mathew Brady – a cabinet card photograph of Hiram Rhoades Revels (1822-1901). Of mixed African and Indian descent, he was a Methodist minister and later the first Black Senator (Mississippi) during Reconstruction, later the President of Alcorn University.
moderate political orientation and oratorical skills honed from years as a preacher, Revels filled a vacant seat in the United States Senate in 1870. Just before the Senate agreed to admit a black man to its ranks on February 25, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sized up the importance of the moment: “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration,” Sumner roared, “and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality…. The Declaration was only half established by Independence. The greatest duty remained behind. In assuring the equal rights of all we complete the work.”
Hiram Rhodes Revels was born to free parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 27, 1827. His father worked as a Baptist preacher, and his mother was of Scottish descent. He claimed his ancestors “as far back as my knowledge extends, were free,” and, in addition to his Scottish background, he was rumored to be of mixed African and Croatan Indian lineage. In an era when educating black children was illegal in North Carolina, Revels attended a school taught by a free black woman and worked a few years as a barber. In 1844, he moved north to complete his education. Revels attended the Beech Grove Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana, and the Darke County Seminary for black students, in Ohio. In 1845, Revels was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. His first pastorate was likely in Richmond, Indiana, where he was elected an elder to the AME Indiana Conference in 1849. In the early 1850s, Revels married Phoebe A. Bass, a free black woman from Ohio, and they had six daughters.
Revels traveled throughout the country, carrying out religious work and educating fellow African Americans in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. Although Missouri forbade free blacks to live in the state for fear they would instigate uprisings, Revels took a pastorate at an AME Church in St. Louis in 1853, noting that the law was “seldom enforced.” However, Revels later revealed he had to be careful because of restrictions on his movements. “I sedulously refrained from doing anything that would incite slaves to run away from their masters,” he recalled. “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.” Despite his cautiousness, Revels was imprisoned for preaching to the black community in 1854. Upon his release, he accepted a position with the Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, Maryland, working alongside his brother, Willis Revels, also an AME pastor. Hiram Revels was the principal of a black school in Baltimore and subsequently attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, on a scholarship from 1855 to 1857. He was one of the few black men in the United States with at least some college education.
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