On Feb. 11 in the House Chamber of the Old Capitol in Jackson, the Mississippi Department of Archives and History, the state agency that operates the fantastic Mississippi Civil Rights Museum, celebrated the life of Hiram Rhodes Revels.
It was in that very room 150 years earlier that Revels, an African American born to free people of color in Fayetteville, North Carolina, in 1827, was elected by the Mississippi State Senate to serve as one of the state’s two senators in the United States Congress.
Revels was the first African American to serve in Congress, and, on the 150th anniversary of his election, there was a great deal of national interest given to his life. Eric Foner, author of “The Second Founding: How the Civil War and Reconstruction Remade the Constitution,” penned an op-ed largely about Revels for the Feb. 14 edition of The New York Times.
“Hiram Revels is worth remembering as both a pioneer of black political power and a refutation of racist stereotypes,” wrote Foner.
Revels, a barber by trade, grew up as an apprentice to his older brother, who owned a barbering shop in Lincolnton, North Carolina. Following the death of his brother, Revels took ownership of the shop until becoming an African Methodist Episcopal Church priest.
He spent many of his younger years ministering to African Americans across the Midwest, a dangerous role. Revels provided religious instruction to slaves, and, as he later recalled, was met “with a great deal of opposition.” He was briefly imprisoned in Missouri in 1854 for, in his words, “preaching the gospel to Negroes, though I was never subjected to violence.”
At the onset of the Civil War in 1861, Revels was a Methodist Episcopal Church minister in Baltimore, Maryland, where he also led a black high school. He helped the U.S. Army recruit two volunteer regiments of African Americans, and, two years later, he joined the Army as a chaplain for an African American regiment in Mississippi.
According to Foner, Revels “came to Union-occupied Mississippi … and threw himself into educating the former slaves.” At the war’s conclusion in 1865, Revels returned to preaching and briefly led churches in Leavenworth, Kansas, and New Orleans before receiving the call to permanently lead a church in Natchez.
He settled in Reconstruction-era Natchez with his wife and five daughters in 1866. In 1868, the state’s provisional governor, Adelbert Ames, appointed Revels as a Natchez alderman, and, one year later, he was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi Senate.
While in the state legislature, Revels delivered the body’s opening prayer in January 1870, a prayer so powerful that Mississippi Congressman John R. Lynch later noted it “made Revels a United States Senator.”
Prior to 1913, state legislatures elected U.S. senators, and, in 1870, Mississippi’s two Senate seats had been vacant since the start of the Civil War. As Foner notes, “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.”
During his time in the Senate, Revels supported racial equality, later writing that “I did all I could for the benefit of my needy and much imposed-upon people.” He fought for the reinstatement of black legislators from the Georgia General Assembly, and he persuaded the Secretary of War to hire black mechanics at the Baltimore Navy Yard. Revels also fought for integration in public schools and in the railroad system.
His Senate term expired in March 1871, and Revels returned to Mississippi, where he was appointed as the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College, which is now Alcorn State University. He briefly served as Mississippi’s interim secretary of state in 1873 and continued as college president until 1882.
Following his retirement, Revels moved to Holly Springs, where he resumed preaching and served as editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, a Methodist newspaper. He also taught at Rust College prior to his death on January 16, 1901, at the age of 73.
I agree with Foner that Revels had a life worth remembering, but I wonder how many people do. There are few mentions to Revels in our culture; indeed, there are not – to my knowledge – any significant public memorials to him. Looking at a Mississippi map, one that is covered with honorariums to Civil War figures, I do not see a municipality named Revels or a county called Revels County.
Where are the highways devoted to Revels? The schools? The statues?
As our state debates touchy subjects like the removal of Confederate monuments and the possible changing of our state flag, it may be time to look at honoring people like Revels, who committed their lives to racial equality and fought the hard fight when others could not or would not.
Revels deserves more respect than a tall tomb in his adopted hometown of Holly Springs, and, while we are taking a deep look into ourselves and the image our state projects to the nation and to the world, he is a figure we should remember.