FEBRUARY 25, 1870

The swearing in of Hiram Revels Credit: Mississippi Department of Archives and History

Two days after Mississippi was readmitted to the Union, Hiram Revels became the first Black American elected as U.S. senator. “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration,” Republican Sen, Charles Sumner of Massachusetts said, “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.” 

Born free in North Carolina, Revels became a national force in an office once held by Jefferson Davis, the former President of the Confederacy. A minister by trade, Revels sought to improve the education of others, working with Black Americans in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky and Tennessee. In 1854, he was imprisoned for preaching to the Black community. After that, he moved to Baltimore, where he served as principal of a Black school. 

When the Civil War broke out in 1861, he helped recruit two black regiments from Maryland and later served as chaplain for Black soldiers fighting in Mississippi. After the war ended, he worked for a church in Kansas. On the train, the conductor asked him and his family to move to the smoking car. They refused, and the conductor relented. 

Not long after, he and his family settled in Natchez, Mississippi, he wae was elected as an alderman. Winning over both Black and white with his calls for cooperation, he was elected to the Mississippi State Senate, one of more than 30 African Americans to serve in the Legislature during Reconstruction. “We are in the midst of an exciting canvass,” he wrote a friend in a letter. “We are determined that Mississippi shall be settled on a basis of justice and political and legal equality.” 

He drew attention as soon as he arrived with his moving words. After Mississippi lawmakers appointed him to the U.S. Senate, a few tried to block him from taking office. Revels remained steadfast and took office. “I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase,” he went on to say. “If the nation should take a step for the encouragement of this prejudice against the colored race, can they have any grounds upon which to predicate a hope that heaven will smile upon them and prosper them?” 

He supported universal amnesty for former Confederates, requiring only their sworn loyalty to the Union. “I am in favor of removing the disabilities of those upon whom they are imposed in the South,” he said, “just as fast as they give evidence of having become loyal and being loyal.” 

After the end of his Senate term in 1871, he became the first president of Alcorn University, the first land-grant school for Black students. He later taught theology at Rust College and died of a stroke in 1901.

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The stories of investigative reporter Jerry Mitchell have helped put four Klansmen and a serial killer behind bars. His stories have also helped free two people from death row, exposed injustices and corruption, prompting investigations and reforms as well as the firings of boards and officials. He is a Pulitzer Prize finalist, a longtime member of Investigative Reporters & Editors, and a winner of more than 30 other national awards, including a $500,000 MacArthur “genius” grant. After working for three decades for the statewide Clarion-Ledger, Mitchell left in 2019 and founded the Mississippi Center for Investigative Reporting.