February 25, 1870 – First African American, Hiram Revels, Is Seated in the U.S. Senate

On this day in history, the African American Hiram Revels was sworn into the U.S. Senate, although not without a fight by that body.

Hiram Rhodes Revels

Hiram Rhodes Revels

Hiram Revels was born in North Carolina in 1827 to free parents of African and European ancestry. A minister of the Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1866 he was given a pastorship in Natchez, Mississippi, where he settled with his wife and five daughters.

Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868 and a year later he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate. At that time, the state legislature elected U.S. senators from Mississippi. In 1870 Revels was elected by a vote of 81 to 15 in the Mississippi State Senate to finish the term of one of the state’s two seats in the US Senate, which had been left vacant since the Civil War.

When Revels arrived in Washington, Southern Democrats opposed seating him. The Democrats based their opposition on the 1857 Dred Scott Decision by the U.S. Supreme Court, which ruled that people of African ancestry were not and could not be citizens. They argued that no black man was a citizen before the 14th Amendment was ratified in 1868, and thus Revels could not satisfy the Constitutional requirement for senators of nine years’ prior citizenship. Revels’ supporters dismissed that statement, pointing out that he had been a voter many years earlier in Ohio and was therefore certainly a citizen. They also contended that because Dred Scott was overturned, it was not relevant.

In any event, because the Republicans held a majority, the Senate agreed to admit Revels to its ranks on February 25 (voting on strict party lines with all Democrats opposed). Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts spoke on the importance of the moment:

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.” (Congressional Globe, Senate, 41st Cong., 2nd sess. (25 February 1870): 1567)

Charles Sumner in later years

Charles Sumner in later years

Revels’ term lasted one year, February 1870 to March 3, 1871. He spoke out for greater equality for blacks, although without much success.

Revels resigned two months before his term expired to accept appointment as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), a historically black college located in Claiborne County, Mississippi.

He died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

Revels along with Blanche K Bruce, also of Mississippi, were elected to the Senate during Reconstruction. After their terms were ended, over 75 years passed before another African American was elected to the Senate (Edward Brooke of Massachusetts in 1966). Today, the Senate has only three black members: Cory Booker, Kamala Harris and Tim Scott, in spite of the fact that, as of July 2016, African Americans comprised an estimated 12.7% of the American population.

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