Tuesday, February 25, 2020

This Day in Reconstruction History (Hiram Revels Becomes First African-American U.S. Senator)

Feb. 25, 1870— Forty-eight hours after racist Democrats in the U.S. Senate had balked at accepting his credentials from the state of Mississippi as a new member of “the world’s greatest deliberative body,” Hiram Revels, a former minister and educator, became the first African-American member of the Senate. 

The vote to accept his credentials from Mississippi and seat him was symbolic—the new Senator was filling the seat left vacant when Jefferson Davis left it to become President of the Confederacy. But it was also dramatic (the audience in the galleries rose up to cheer when he entered the body).

Additionally, the vote was ironic in that a selection meant to diminish racism succeeded because of a vestige of it: supporters argued that Revels was of mixed black and white ancestry, and therefore exempt from the infamous Dred Scott decision that barred full-blooded African-Americans from citizenship.

The Reconstruction era in which Revels rose briefly to prominence does not have the dramatic, life-or-death clashes of the Civil War, but it should not be overlooked. Above all, exploring its representative figures like Revels helps us understand what difficulties they encountered, what compromises they made, and where they fell tragically short.

Though not a political organizer in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War, the Northern-educated Revels’ background as a free black before the conflict marked him as a potential Republican recruit. He had honed his speaking skills as a minister in African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church. His travels to Indiana, Illinois, Kansas, Kentucky, Tennessee and Missouri gave him experience in spreading the gospel and in educating his congregants. During the Civil War, he had demonstrated his commitment to the Union by helping recruit two black regiments from Maryland.

When the fighting ceased, Revels was at the center of a Mississippi group deemed crucial by Republicans for gaining control of the state: educators teaching freedmen the literacy skills that might allow them to rise in the postbellum South. Putting aside his fear that public office might interfere with his ministry, he went along with his nomination and victory as a Natchez alderman in 1868. A year later, he became a member of the state legislature.

In January 1870, Revels delivered the opening prayer to the legislature. "That prayer,—one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the Senate Chamber,—made Revels a United States Senator,” remembered his friend, John Roy Lynch. “He made a profound impression upon all who heard him. 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."

Once in office, Revels was careful to seek common ground, even favoring universal amnesty for former Confederates, as long as they swore loyalty to the Union. He also supported the Grant Administration’s ill-starred attempt to purchase the Dominican Republic from Spain. He was able to wield just enough influence that he persuaded the War Department to reverse the decision barring black mechanics from Baltimore from working at the U.S. Navy Yard.

But not all his initiatives succeeded. His nomination of an African-American to West Point, for instance, ran aground. And, in his maiden speech in the Senate, he observed presciently that a provision in the state constitution to Georgia, newly readmitted to the Union, would be used as a weapon to prevent black officeholders.

A year later, with his term expiring, rather than accepting a patronage position from President Grant, Revels returned to Mississippi to become head of Alcorn University, the first land–grant school in the United States for black students. His political influence declined as he became caught up in the bitter battle for control between Republicans and the resurgent Democrats in Mississippi.

By the time he died three decades after his brief period in the U.S. Senate, Revels had witnessed America’s retreat from the promise of Reconstruction: full political, social and economic equality for all its citizens. He himself consistently preferred caution to confrontation. His intelligence, service to his state, and independent streak should have been enough all by themselves to disprove the canard that freedmen were ignorant tools of Northern carpetbaggers. 

It would take a mass movement to spark, in the civil-rights movement, a second Reconstruction—and, among historians, a fresh reconsideration of Revels and other African-American officeholders.

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