Facial Hair Friday: Hiram Revels

Today’s Facial Hair Friday is about Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African American to serve in Congress and the first African American Senator. It’s from Rachel Bartgis, conservator technician at the National Archives at College Park, MD.

Hiram Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in either 1822 or 1827. His parents were both freemen, and his father was a Baptist preacher. Young Revels attended seminary in Indiana and Ohio and was ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845. From 1845 to 1853 he traveled through Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri, working as an educator and minister with African American communities. 

Despite a state law forbidding free Blacks to live in the state, Revels became the minister of an AME Church in St. Louis, Missouri, in 1853. The law was seldom enforced in practice, but Revels had to be extremely careful with what he preached and where he went. Despite his caution, Revels was imprisoned in 1854. 

After his release, Revels moved to Baltimore, Maryland, where he accepted a position at a Presbyterian Church, working alongside his brother. After attending Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, from 1855 to 1857, he became the principal of a Black high school in Baltimore. 

During the Civil War, Revels served as a chaplain in the United States Colored Troops, helped recruit and organize two Black Union regiments, and took part at the Battle of Vicksburg. 

After the war, Revels moved to Leavenworth, Kansas, to serve a congregation there. He had married Phoebe A. Bass, a free Black woman from Ohio, in the early 1850s, and they had six daughters. It was while traveling in Kansas that Revels, his wife, and his daughters were asked to sit in the smoking car instead of the car for first–class ticket holders. 

Revels protested that the language in the smoking car would be entirely inappropriate for his wife and children, and the conductor finally relented. 

Revels settled in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1866, where he became a vital part of the Republican Party’s efforts to rally their newly enfranchised Black new electorate in postwar Mississippi. Using his influence as an educator and the oratory skills he had perfected as a minister, he first became an alderman in Natchez in 1868 and then won a seat in the Mississippi state senate in 1869. Out of 140 legislators, Revels was one of more than 30 African Americans who were elected to the state’s new Reconstruction government. 

Before the adoption of the 17th Amendment in 1913, U.S. Senate seats were chosen by state legislatures, not directly by voters. After the military occupation of the south ended and southern states were allowed to send members to Congress again, Revels was chosen by the Mississippi state legislature to finish the partial term of a Senate seat left vacant after Mississippi’s secession in 1861. 

Revels’s arrival in the U.S. Senate did not come without objections from the chamber’s Democrats: one faction claimed that his election was null and void because Mississippi had been under military law and that without a civil government, election could not be confirmed. Others went so far as to claim that Revels had not become a U.S. citizen until the ratification of the 14th Amendment in 1868, and therefore he was ineligible to be a Senator. But on February 25, 1870, the Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Revels.

The other Senate seat from Mississippi had last been held by the man who became the president of the Confederacy, Jefferson Davis, and the power of Mississippi sending a Black man to the Senate was not lost on observers at the time. 

Nevada Senator James Nye wrote: 

“[Davis] went out to establish a government whose cornerstone should be the oppression and perpetual enslavement of a race because their skin differed in color from his. . . . [W]hat a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample under foot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat upon this floor.”

Revels received assignments to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia. Revels’s reputation during his political career was largely as a moderate; for instance, he favored universal amnesty for former Confederates. However, he sided with Radical Republicans in a complete rejection of the perpetuation of segregated schools, believing that if segregated schools were abolished, people would soon forget the difference. 

After his Senate term ended in 1871, Revels declined the patronage positions offered by President Ulysses S. Grant and returned to Mississippi. He became the first president of Alcorn University, the first land–grant college for Black students. In 1873, Revels took a leave of absence to serve as Mississippi’s interim secretary of state and returned in 1876. He retired in 1882 but remained active as a professor and in the AME church. Hiram Revels died in Mississippi on January 16, 1901.

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