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Vicksburg History

Hiram R. Revels was the first Black senator In the United States



Hiram R. Revels
Hiram R. Revels (Courtesy of the Old Courthouse Museum)

The Honorable Hiram Rhodes Revels is among the many prominent, influential Black Americans that have made a resounding impact on Mississippi and our Nation. Educational opportunity and equality were the foundations of his philosophy, as it had always been an aspect of his own growth throughout his life. He used every chance he had to uplift the newly freedmen of the 1870s, while crushing the ignorant stereotypes and pseudoscience that had plagued the United States for far too long. After having helped with the establishment of several churches and organizations, founding Alcorn University, and serving as the first black Senator of the United States for the State of Mississippi, it’s clear that he and his accomplishments should be remembered and honored.

Revels’ life began quite differently for someone born in 1827 in Fayetteville, North Carolina, a State where enslavement was legal. He was born free and had access to schools allowing him to pursue his education very early in life. North Carolina could be considered fairly progressive for a Southern State at this point though. Free Black Americans could vote, discuss and participate in politics, and there were educational advantages in that schools were available without any form of segregation. Unfortunately, this would all change after Nat Turner’s rebellion in the 1830s, causing Revels and many other freemen to leave the State as laws began to restrict the rights of black citizens.

Seeking professional training as a religious teacher, Revels first moved to Indiana to attend the Quaker coeducational school in Union County before heading off to the seminary in Drake County, Ohio. Revels states that it was here that he “studied more earnestly than before to keep pace with advanced students.” By 1845, Revels had been ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church and had begun traveling and lecturing in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Maryland. While preaching the gospel was his objective, he managed to create a network over parts of the northern United States which he used to help “fugitive slaves” escape to Canada.

By the outbreak of the Civil War, Revels found himself in Baltimore assisting in the formation of the first two black regiments in Maryland before traveling to St. Louis, Missouri, to create a school for freedmen. He joined the Freedman’s Bureau, and in 1864, was directed to Vicksburg, Mississippi, to assist the Provost Marshal. This would be Hiram R. Revels’ first encounter with what would become a lifelong affection of Mississippi, and where he would enter the newly developing political landscape of the South.

What ultimately connected him with his national fame began with an appointment by General Ames, military governor, as an alderman in Natchez. Adams County was entitled to one State Senator, as agreed to in the 1869 Constitution of Mississippi, and while Revels was serving his newly appointed position, his name had been put in for consideration. The county had been split on who they would select for this position and needed someone that could break the tie. Although Revels had been new to the community, it was agreed that his advanced education made him an exceptional candidate. The State Legislature convened on the first Monday in January 1870, where Hiram Revels would lead the prayer on his first day in office. Lt. Gov. Powers remarked, “that prayer – one of the most impressive and eloquent that had ever been delivered in the Senate Chamber – made Revels a United States Senator.” Revels’ political journey had not reached its end though. It was agreed that Mississippi be given a short-term Senate seat of one year to close out the term Jefferson Davis, former President of the Confederate States, had begun before the Civil War broke out. Hiram R. Revels was again selected with resounding support. With a vote of thirty-nine to eighteen, Revels was elected as the first black United States Senator.

A single year gave little time for someone to leave their mark, but Revels used every available moment to establish a new precedent for our nation. His first speech came only three weeks after being sworn in, and was one of the most anticipated moments in congress at this point in history. Press from all around gathered to remark on the event. A comment from the Philadelphia Press stated, “Never since the birth of the republic has such an audience been assembled under one single roof. It embraced the greatest and the least American citizens.” Although committee positions had already been given by the start of Revels’ term, he pushed for placement on the committee of education and labor giving him the influence to promote his philosophy of educational equality. In his final speech in the Senate Chamber, he expressed the necessity of preventing segregation in schools, citing positive effects within the communities of New England when they allowed schools to integrate. When he was not working in the Chamber, he was traveling the nation lecturing communities in this same regard.

As Revels’ term came to an end, his colleagues feared him leaving politics. They believed he had much more to give the nation and began seeking other opportunities for him on his behalf. Governor Alcorn of Mississippi believed he had a different use of Revels’ talents though. He wanted Revels to establish a University for black Americans, had pushed a bill for it through the Mississippi House and Senate, gave it funding, and wanted it to be named Revels University. Hiram agreed to all except the name and instead insisted that it be named Alcorn. In May of 1871, the bill passed and the school became official with Hiram R. Revels as its first President. He would serve in this position until 1882 when he had to retire due to complications with his health.

Hiram Rhodes Revels is truly an inspiration. His beliefs never wavered, and his contributions to the political philosophy of the 1870s can still be recognized today. Realizing the unique quality of his position would place him before the public eye, he used his time to promote progress and establish a foundation for the future of our nation’s politics and education.

Vicksburg and Warren County Historical Society

If you enjoyed this story about the Honorable Hiram Rhodes Revels and want to learn more, please consider visiting the Old Court House Museum here in Vicksburg, MS. We’ve been a museum for 74 years now, and all items on display were donated by families from here. We also have a vast archive in our McCardle Research Library that is accessible by appointment. Members of the Historical Society have free admission to the museum, so please also consider becoming a member. All proceeds raised through membership go directly to the preservation of the museum and its contents. For more information visit our website at or give us a call at 601-636-0741. You never know what you’ll find at the Old Court House!

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