"It is certain, in any case, that ignorance, allied with power, is the most ferocious enemy justice can have." ~ James Baldwin
"Nothing in the world is more dangerous than sincere ignorance and conscientious stupidity." ~ Martin Luther King, Jr.
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Tuesday, September 27, 2011

Hiram Revels

“I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase…. If the nation should take a step for the encouragement of this prejudice against the colored race, can they have any grounds upon which to predicate a hope that Heaven will smile upon them and prosper them?”

Hiram Rhodes Revels was born September 27, 1822 in Fayetteville, North Carolina to a free mixed-race father and Scots mother. Although it was illegal to teach African American children at the time, he was secretly tutored by a free African American woman as a child, and was apprenticed as a barber by his brother. He then attended seminary in Indiana, and was ordained by the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845. After serving temporary appointments in several states he attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois, and was then appointed to a congregation in Baltimore where he was also principal of a boys' high school.

During the Civil War Revels helped form two Union regiments and served as a chaplain at Vicksburg, Mississippi, seeing action at the Battle of Vicksburg. After the war he moved from the AME Church to the Methodist Episcopal Church, and served in Lexington, Kentucky and New Orleans before settling in Natchez. He worked two years with the Freedmen's Bureau establishing schools near Vicksburg and Jackson, Mississippi.

Revels was elected alderman in Natchez in 1868 and to the Mississippi State Senate in 1869. On the first day the senate was in session in January 1870 he gave an opening prayer that fellow Natchez politician John R. Lynch described in his memoirs as "...one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the [Mississippi] Senate Chamber.... It impressed those who heard it that Revels was not only a man of great natural ability but that he was also a man of superior attainments." The State Senate was responsible for choosing U. S. Senators at the time, and Revels was elected to fill a one-year term in the unexpired seat that Jefferson Davis had vacated in 1861.

Opponents in the U. S. Senate claimed that Revels had been a citizen for only the two years since the Fourteenth Amendment had been ratified, but the Senate voted to seat him by a margin of 48 to 8, and on February 25, 1870 he became the first African American United States Senator. Since that time there have been five others. Revels served on the Education and Labor Committee and the Washington D.C. Committee, unsuccessfully fighting a bill to keep Washington schools segregated.

After leaving the Senate, Revels was named president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) in Claiborne, Mississippi, the first land-grant college for African American students. He resigned in 1874 for political reasons but returned two years later under a new state administration after having taught theology at Shaw College (now Rust College) in Holly Springs.

Revels retired from Alcorn in 1882 but continued in the ministry, pastoring a Methodist Episcopal Church in Holly Springs and later serving as district superintendent. He died at a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi on January 16, 1901 at the age of 78.