Today in 1870: Hiram R. Revels becomes the first black United States Senator

February 25, 2011

As part of Black History Month, Westlaw Insider will be examining issues and events that have shaped African American history.

Today in Legal History

In the wake of the Civil War, Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first black member of the United States Senate, was elected on February 25, 1870. As of 2011, there have only been six black U.S. Senators, a distinction Revels shares with current U.S. President, Barack Obama.

Also like the current U.S. President, Revels comes from a mixed-race heritage;  Revels’s father was mixed-race and his mother was white.  Born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1827,  Revels was both well-traveled and well-educated: he attended schools in Indiana, Ohio, and Illinois, was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Maryland, and conducted religious work in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, and Missouri.   Revels also served as a chaplain during the Civil War.

In 1869, after the war, Revels was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate. In January, 1870, Revels gave the opening prayer in the state legislature.  The prayer was so moving and so affected those who heard it that Revels was elected by the legislature to the U.S. Senate the next month by a vote of 81 to 15 (U.S. Senators were not directly elected by public vote until the Seventeenth Amendment was adopted in 1913).

Hiram RevelsRevels’s path to the U.S. Senate was not without its hurdles, however. Citing the infamous Dred Scott v. Sandford decision, conservative Southern Democrats officially challenged Revels’s credentials on the grounds that he was not a U.S. citizen the requisite period of time, and therefore was not eligible to hold office.  Although the Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to all African Americans, the amendment was only adopted two years prior in 1868.  Revels, his opponents claimed, had only been a U.S. citizen for two years, when election to the Senate required nine years prior citizenship;  therefore, Revels was ineligible to hold such office.

Revels’s supporters successfully argued that he had been a citizen for his entire life since Revels was not of pure African ancestry, the Dred Scott decision did not apply to him.  The state legislature voted to approve Revels’s admission 48 to 8.

Ironically, Revels’s seat in the U.S. Senate was previously held by the staunchly pro-slavery Democrat Albert G. Brown, who vacated the seat at the start of the Civil War. In contrast, Revels’s voice in the Senate called for racial equality, compromise, and moderation, favoring amnesty for former confederates.   Despite his resigning from the position after just over a year in office, his oratory skills and election made him a celebrity senator, going on lecture tours in the North and West.

After leaving the Senate in 1871, Revels remained active both in public service and in his ministry.  Hiram Revels died on January 16, 1901, while attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.

To learn more about Hiram R. Revels, visit his U.S. Congress Biographical Directory Page, or sign up for daily Black History Month facts.