THE WOES OF BEING THE FIRST : HIRAM RHOADES REVELS

THE WOES OF BEING THE FIRST : HIRAM RHOADES REVELS

 

In order to understand the the political climate of today , I had to take a hard look at what it must have been for the first encounters of Afro-Americans entering the political arena after freedom , and the Civil War. Being from Natchez Mississippi , the oldest city on the Mississippi River , and the City of Residence of the First Black Senator to be elected into the congress of the United States. My journey begins with Hiram Rhoades Revels.

To get an overall overview of Revel’s life I went to www.history.house.gov to give me a clearer picture of the Man.

A freeman his entire life, Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. With his moderate political orientation and oratorical skills honed from years as a preacher, Revels filled a vacant seat in the United States Senate in 1870. Just before the Senate agreed to admit a black man to its ranks on February 25, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts sized up the importance of the moment: “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration,” Sumner roared, “and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality…. The Declaration was only half established by Independence. The greatest duty remained behind. In assuring the equal rights of all we complete the work.”

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, Revels returned to St. Louis, where he established a freedmen’s school. At the end of hostilities, 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.

Before the Civil War, fewer than 1,000 free black Mississippians had access to a basic education. Thus, leadership from freedmen such as Revels became vital to the Republican Party for rallying the new electorate in the postwar years.7 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, encouraged to run by a friend, future Representative John Roy Lynch, Revels won a seat in the Mississippi state senate.8 Under the newly installed Reconstruction government, Revels was one of more than 30 African Americans among the state’s 140 legislators.9 Upon his election, he wrote a friend in Leavenworth, Kansas: “We are in the midst of an exciting canvass…. I am working very hard in politics as well as in other matters. We are determined that Mississippi shall be settled on a basis of justice and political and legal equality.”10 A little–known politician, Revels attracted the attention of fellow legislators when he gave a moving prayer on the opening day of the session.

Revels arrived in Washington at the end of January 1870, but could not present his credentials until Mississippi was readmitted to the United States on February 23. Senate Republicans sought to swear in Revels immediately afterwards, but Senate Democrats were determined to block the effort. Led by Senator Garrett Davis of Kentucky and Senator Willard Saulsbury of Delaware, the Democrats claimed Revels’s election was null and void, arguing that Mississippi was under military rule and lacked a civil government to confirm his election. Others claimed Revels was not a U.S. citizen until the passage of the 14th Amendment in 1868 and was therefore ineligible to become a U.S. Senator. Senate Republicans rallied to his defense. Though Revels would not fill Davis’s seat, the symbolism of a black man’s admission to the Senate after the departure of the former President of the Confederacy was not lost on Radical Republicans. Nevada Senator James Nye underlined the significance of this event: “[Jefferson Davis] went out to establish a government whose cornerstone should be the oppression and perpetual enslavement of a race because their skin differed in color from his,” Nye declared. “Sir, what a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man, who marched out to trample under foot the Constitution and the laws of the country he had sworn to support, comes back one of that humble race whom he would have enslaved forever to take and occupy his seat upon this floor.”14 On the afternoon of February 25, the Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Revels, who subsequently received assignments to the Committee on Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia.

The stage was being set for how African Americans will fair in politics from this point on . As for as the start of African American participation in politics , their rights would be granted by the constitution but as we dig deeper their faith will be governed by the states in which they live.

 

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