Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. He was sworn as a U.S. Senator on February 25, 1870. Upon the completion of his term, he returned to Mississippi and in 1871, became the first president of Alcorn State University.
Hiram Rhodes Revels was born to free parents in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 27, 1827. His father worked as a Baptist preacher, and his mother was of Scottish descent. He claimed his ancestors “as far back as my knowledge extends, were free,” and, in addition to his Scottish background, he was rumored to be of mixed African and Croatan Indian lineage. In an era when educating black children was illegal in North Carolina, Revels attended a school taught by a free black woman and worked a few years as a barber. In 1844, he moved north to complete his education. Revels attended the Beech Grove Quaker Seminary in Liberty, Indiana, and the Darke County Seminary for black students, in Ohio. In 1845, Revels was ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. In the early 1850s, Revels married Phoebe A. Bass, a free black woman from Ohio, and they had six daughters.
Revels traveled throughout the country, carrying out religious work and educating fellow African Americans in Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, and Tennessee. When the Civil War broke out in 1861, Revels helped recruit two black regiments from Maryland. In 1862, when black soldiers were permitted to fight, he served as the chaplain for a black regiment in campaigns in Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi. In 1863, he established a freedmen’s school in St. Louis, Missouri. At the end of the Civil War, Revels served in a church in Leavenworth, Kansas. While traveling in Kansas, Revels and his family were asked to sit in the smoking car rather than the car for first–class ticket holders. Revels protested that the language in the smoking car was too coarse for his wife and children, and the conductor finally relented. Revels served in churches in Louisville, Kentucky, and New Orleans, Louisiana, before settling in Natchez, Mississippi, in 1866.
It was through his work in education that Revels became involved in politics, taking his first elected position as a Natchez alderman in 1868. He entered politics reluctantly, fearing racial friction and interference with his religious work, but he quickly won over blacks and whites with his moderate and compassionate political opinions. In 1869, Revels won a seat in the Mississippi state senate. Under the newly installed Reconstruction government, Revels was one of more than 30 African Americans among the state’s 140 legislators. Revels attracted the attention of fellow legislators when he gave a moving prayer on the opening day of the session.
On January 20, 1870, the Mississippi state legislature selected Revels to complete the remaining 13 months of the unexpired term of former senator Albert Brown, who abandoned the seat in 1861 when Mississippi seceded from the Union. Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. He was sworn as a U.S. Senator on February 25, 1870. Upon the completion of his term, he returned to Mississippi and in 1871, became the founding president of then Alcorn University, currently Alcorn State University.