Hiram Rhoades Revels

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Hiram Rhoades Revels

Hiram Rhoades Revels (1822-1901), African American clergyman and university administrator, was the first black American to sit in the U.S. Senate.

Hiram Revels was born of free parents on Sept. 27, 1822, in Fayetteville, N.C. His early education was limited, since it was illegal in North Carolina at that time to teach African Americans, slave or free, to read or write. As soon as he was able, he moved to Union County, Ind., to further his education at a Quaker seminary. After completing his work there, he moved to Ohio to attend another seminary. Eventually he moved to Illinois and graduated from Knox College at Bloomington. In 1845 he was ordained a minister of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Md.

As a minister, Revels served African American churches in Ohio, Kentucky, Illinois, Indiana, and Tennessee. He finally settled in Baltimore, where he became minister of a church and principal of a school for blacks. When the Civil War began in 1861, he helped organize the first two regiments of black soldiers from the state of Maryland.

In 1863 Revels moved to St. Louis, established a school for African American freedmen, and recruited another regiment of black soldiers. In 1864 he joined the Federal forces in Mississippi as chaplain to an African American regiment. For a short time he was provost marshal of Vicksburg. For 2 years he worked with the Freedmen's Bureau and established several schools and churches for African Americans near Jackson and Vicksburg.

In 1866 Revels settled in Natchez, Miss. He joined the Methodist Episcopal Church in 1868, the year he was elected alderman. In 1870 he was elected as a Republican to fill an unexpired term in the U.S. Senate, where he served until March 1871. As a senator, he was dignified and respected; his political views, however, were somewhat conservative.

After retiring from the Senate, Revels returned to Mississippi to serve as president of Alcorn College (1871-1874). He was removed from his post for political reasons but was appointed president of Alcorn again in 1876. Following this second term, he returned to church work in Holly Springs, Miss. While attending a church conference at Aberdeen, Miss., he died on Jan. 16, 1901.

Further Reading

Revels's unpublished papers are in the Library of Congress. There is no full-scale biography of him. Biographical sketches are in Wells Brown, The Black Man: His Antecedents, His Genius, and His Achievements (1863; new ed. 1968); Benjamin Brawley, Negro Builders and Heroes (1937); and William J. Simmons, Men of Mark (1968). The best book for general reading on the Afro-American in Congress is W. E. B. Du Bois, Black Reconstruction (1935). Other useful sources of information on this period are Samuel Denny Smith, The Negro in Congress, 1870-1901 (1940); Lerone Bennett, Black Power, 1867-1877 (1969); and Maurine Christopher, America's Black Congressmen (1971). □

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Revels, Hiram Rhoades

September 1, 1822
January 16, 1901

Politician Hiram Rhoades Revels was the first black man to sit in the U.S. Senate, where he completed the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis. Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina. His parents, who were free blacks, sent him to an elementary school run by a black woman. Moving north, Revels studied at several seminaries in Indiana and Ohio. He then became a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) and pastored congregations in Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Missouri, and Maryland. In 1854 Revels left the AME Church after the congregation where he was pastor in St. Louis was divided by squabbling. He joined the ministry of the Presbyterian Church and was posted to Baltimore, where he worked until the outbreak of the Civil War.

Once hostilities commenced, Revels helped organize the first black regiments in Maryland and Missouri. Leaving the Presbyterian Church, he went south; reunited with the AME Church, Revels became active in Republican politics, serving on the city council of Natchez, Mississippi, briefly as a state senator, and in 18701871 replacing Jefferson Davis in the U.S. Senate.

Compared to other AME ministers who entered Reconstruction politics, Revels was rather lackluster. During his tenure in the Senate, Revels delivered a few speeches, but none of the legislation he introduced was passed. After his term expired, he returned to Mississippi, left the AME Church, and became a minister in the Methodist Episcopal Church (North). After he left the Senate, Revels served as president of Alcorn University, Mississippi State College for Negroes.

See also African Methodist Episcopal Church; Politics in the United States; Presbyterians


Walker, Clarence E. A Rock in a Weary Land: The African Methodist Episcopal Church during the Civil War and Reconstruction. Baton Rouge: Louisiana State University Press, 1982.

Wharton, Vernon Lane. The Negro in Mississippi, 18651890. Westport, Conn: Greenwood Press, 1984.

clarence e. walker (1996)