Hiram Revels: History & Biography

Instructor: Amy Lively

Amy has an M.A. in American History. She has taught history at all levels, from university to middle school.

This lesson discusses Hiram Revels, the first African American member of the United States Senate. Learn more about Revels and his work as a politician, minister, and educator, and then test your knowledge with a quiz.

Hiram Revels

Revels the Minister

The fact that Hiram Revels became a senator and a teacher but had to learn to read in secret says much about the United States before the Civil War. Revels was born free in North Carolina on September 27, 1827. However, it was illegal to teach African Americans to read or write. Revels could have been illiterate had it not been for the lessons he received from a free African American woman. At 22, Revels studied at Beech Grove Seminary in Indiana. While there, he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME), the first black Episcopal church in the nation. Revels was ordained as an AME minister in 1845, and by 1849, he was an elder. His ministry took him around the country, and in Missouri in 1854, Revels was imprisoned for preaching to other African Americans. In 1863, Revels became the first African American pastor at Madison Street Presbyterian, Baltimore's first church for slaves.

Civil War Leadership

Revels had much at stake in the Civil War. He understood that if the Union was defeated, he faced the very real possibility of losing his freedom. When Abraham Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, removing the restrictions on African Americans serving for the Union Army, Revels went to work. He recruited three regiments of African American soldiers. The 4th United States Colored Infantry Regiment, made up almost entirely of educated black men, was formed in Baltimore. After that, Revels recruited men for the 39th Regiment of the United States Colored Infantry in Maryland. When his travels took him to St. Louis, Missouri, later in 1863, Revels formed another regiment of African American troops and established a school for freedmen. Revels also served as a chaplain for Union troops in Mississippi.

Election to the U.S. Senate

High drama played out in the U.S. Senate galleries in February 1870. Revels was elected by the Mississippi state legislature to fill one of two Senate seats that had been vacant since Mississippi seceded from the Union. Ironically, one of those seats was vacated by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy. Now, it stood to be filled by an African American. However, many predicted Revels would never be allowed to take that seat. For two days, Democrats debated with Republicans, claiming that Revels had only been a citizen since the Civil Rights Act of 1866. Therefore, they said, Revels was not eligible to be a senator. Republicans rejected the argument and Revels was affirmed by a 48 to 8 vote. When Revels rose to take the oath, it was standing room only in the galleries and the chamber filled with applause as the nation officially elected its first African American senator.

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