There Have Been 10 Black Senators Since Emancipation. Elected 150 years ago, Hiram Revels was the first.

Source: New York Times by Eric Foner

A few days ago, 300 people gathered in the Old State Capitol in Jackson, Miss., to celebrate the 150th anniversary of the election of Hiram Revels as the nation’s first African-American member of Congress.

As nearly everyone knows, in the nation’s more than two centuries of existence Barack Obama is our only black president. Less familiar is the fact that of the nearly 2,000 men and women who have served in the Senate only 10 have been black. Of these, Revels and Blanche K. Bruce were elected from Mississippi during Reconstruction. These numbers offer a stark reminder of the almost insurmountable barriers that have kept African-Americans from the highest offices in government and of how remarkable a moment Reconstruction was in the history of American democracy.

Before the Civil War only a handful of black officials existed anywhere in the country — just a few justices of the peace in Northern abolitionist communities. But during Reconstruction some 2,000 African-Americans occupied positions ranging from members of Congress to state legislators, sheriffs, city councilmen and others. This unprecedented experiment in biracial democracy aroused intense opposition from adherents of white supremacy, at that time concentrated in the Democratic Party, who sought to undermine Reconstruction through outright violence and a campaign of vilification that portrayed black officials as ignorant, corrupt and unfit for public service. The New York World, the nation’s leading Democratic newspaper, described Revels as “a lineal descendant of an orangutan.”

This partisan propaganda was long accorded scholarly legitimacy by American historians. As late as 1947, E. Merton Coulter of the University of Georgia, a former president of the Southern Historical Association, described black officeholding during Reconstruction as “the most spectacular and exotic development in government in the history of white civilization,” which was “the longest to be remembered, shuddered at, and execrated.”

Hiram Revels is worth remembering as both a pioneer of black political power and a refutation of racist stereotypes. Born free in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1827, he studied at religious seminaries in Indiana and Ohio and at Knox College in Illinois. Ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845, he traveled the Midwest as an itinerant missionary and courageously ventured into the upper South to bring religious instruction to slaves. When the Civil War broke out, Revels was working in Baltimore as an A.M.E. minister and the principal of a high school for black students. He came to Union-occupied Mississippi in 1864 and threw himself into educating the former slaves.

Revels’s political career began in 1868, when Union general Adelbert Ames, the state’s provisional governor, appointed him as an alderman in Natchez. He was soon elected to the State Senate. Mississippi’s lawmakers, who included almost three dozen African-Americans, chose Ames for one vacant United States Senate term and Revels for the year that remained of another.


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