Biography of African American Senator Hiram Revels

The pastor and politician advocated for racial equality

U.S. Senator Hiram Revels
Hiram R Revels (1822 - 1901), the first African-American to sit in the United States Senate. Having served in the Union Army as a chaplain, he was elected as a Republican Party Senator from Mississippi. Photo by MPI/Getty Images

It took until 2008 for the first African American to be elected president, but remarkably the first black man to serve as U.S. senator—Hiram Revels—was appointed to the role 138 years earlier. How did Revels manage to become a lawmaker just years after the Civil War ended? With this biography of the trailblazing senator, learn more about his life, legacy and political career.

Early Years and Family Life

Unlike many blacks in the South at the time, Revels was not born a slave but to free parents of black, white and possibly Native American heritage on Sept.

 27, 1827, in Fayetteville, N.C. His older brother Elias Revels owned a barbershop, which Hiram inherited upon his sibling’s death. He ran the shop for a few years and then left in 1844 to study at seminaries in Ohio and Indiana. He became a pastor in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and preached throughout the Midwest before studying religion at Illinois’ Knox College. While preaching to blacks in St. Louis, Mo., Revels was briefly imprisoned for fear that he, a freeman, might inspire enslaved blacks to revolt.

In the early 1850s, he married Phoebe A. Bass, with whom he had six daughters. After becoming an ordained minister, he served as a pastor in Baltimore and as a high school principal. His religious career led to a career in the military. He served as a chaplain of black regiment in Mississippi and recruited blacks for the Union Army.

Political Career

In 1865, Revels joined the staffs of churches in Kansas, Louisiana and Mississippi—where he established schools and started his political career.

In 1868, he served as an alderman in Natchez, Miss. The next year, he became a representative in the Mississippi State Senate.

“I am working very hard in politics as well as in other matters,” he wrote to a friend after his election. “We are determined that Mississippi shall be settled on a basis of justice and political and legal equality.”

In 1870, Revels was elected to fill one of Mississippi’s two empty seats in the U.S. Senate. Serving as a U.S. senator required nine years of citizenship, and Southern Democrats challenged Revels’ election by saying he didn’t meet the citizenship mandate. They cited the 1857 Dred Scott decision in which the Supreme Court determined that African Americans weren’t citizens. In 1868, however, the 14th Amendment granted blacks citizenship. That year, blacks became a force to contend with in politics. As the book “America’s History: Volume 1 to 1877” explains:

“In 1868, African Americans won a majority in one house of the South Carolina legislature; subsequently they won half the state’s eight executive offices, elected three members of Congress, and won a seat on the state supreme court. Over the entire course of Reconstruction, 20 African Americans served as governor, lieutenant governor, secretary of state, treasurer or superintendent of education, and more than 600 served as state legislators. Almost all the African Americans who became state executives had been freeman before the Civil War, whereas most of the legislators had been slaves. Because these African Americans represented districts that large planters had dominated before the Civil War, they embodied the potential of Reconstruction for revolutionizing class relationships in the South.”

The sweeping social change spreading across the South likely made Democrats in the region feel threatened. But their citizenship ploy did not work. Revels’ supporters argued that the pastor-turned-politician had been a citizen. After all, he’d voted in Ohio in the 1850s before the Dred Scott decision changed the citizenship rules. Other supporters said that the Dred Scott decision should have only applied to men who were all black and not mixed-race like Revels. His backers also pointed out that the Civil War and Reconstruction laws had overturned discriminatory legal rulings like Dred Scott. So, on Feb. 25, 1870, Revels became the first African American U.S. senator.

To mark the groundbreaking moment, Republican Sen. Charles Sumner of Massachusetts remarked, “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration, 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.”

Tenure in Office

Once he was sworn in, Revels tried to advocate for equality for blacks. He fought to have African Americans readmitted to the Georgia General Assembly after Democrats forced them out. He spoke out against legislation to maintain segregation in Washington, D.C., schools and served on labor and education committees. He fought for black workers who’d been denied the opportunity to work at the Washington Navy Yard simply because of their skin color. He nominated a young black man named Michael Howard to the U.S. Military Academy at West Point, but Howard was ultimately refused entry. Revels also supported the building of infrastructure, levees and railroad.  

While Revels advocated for racial equality, he did not behave vengefully toward ex-Confederates. Some Republicans wanted them to face ongoing punishment, but Revels thought they should again be granted citizenship, as long as they pledged loyalty to the United States.

Like Barack Obama would be more than a century later, Revels was hailed by his fans for his skills as an orator, which he likely developed because of his experience as a pastor.

Revels served just one year as U.S. senator. In 1871, his term ended, and he accepted the position of president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College in Claiborne County, Mississippi.

Just a few years later, another African American, Blanche K. Bruce, would represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate. While Revels only served a partial term, Bruce became the first African American to serve a full-term in office.

Life After the Senate

Revels’ transition into higher education didn’t spell the end of his career in politics. In 1873, he became Mississippi's interim secretary of state. He lost his job at Alcorn when he opposed the reelection bid of Mississippi Gov. Adelbert Ames, whom Revels accused of exploiting the black vote for personal gain. An 1875 letter Revels wrote to President Ulysses S. Grant about Ames and the carpetbaggers was heavily circulated. It said in part:

“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.”

In 1876, Revels resumed his work at Alcorn, where he served until retiring in 1882. Revels also continued his work as a pastor and edited the A.M.E. Church’s newspaper, the Southwestern Christian Advocate. In addition, he taught theology at Shaw College.

Death and Legacy

On Jan. 16, 1901, Revels died of a stroke in Aberdeen, Miss. He was in town for a church conference. He was 73.

In death, Revels continues to be remembered as a trailblazer.

Just nine African Americans, including Barack Obama, have won election as U.S. senators since Revels' time in office. This indicates that diversity in national politics continues to be a struggle, even in a 21st century United States far removed from slavery.