Hiram R. Revels
On Readmission of Georgia to the Union
March 16, 1870
On February 23, 1870, Hiram R. Revels, Republican of Mississippi, was sworn in as the first African American member of the U.S. Senate and the first ever to serve in the U.S. Congress. In December of that year, he was followed by the first black representative, Joseph H. Rainey of South Carolina.
With the end of the Civil War and the coming of Reconstruction, the Republican party became dominant in the former Confederate states, which were readmitted to representation in the Union only after they had ratified the Thirteenth and Fourteenth Amendments to the Constitution--abolishing slavery and making the former slaves citizens. With ratification in 1870 of the Fifteenth Amendment, protecting the right of all citizens to vote regardless of race, the stage was set for election of the first African American members to the U.S. Senate and House of Representatives.
Hiram Revels, an educator and minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, was born in freedom, and lived in several states before settling in Mississippi after the Civil War. He served in the state senate there, and once Mississippi was readmitted to represenation in the Union, the legislature elected him to fill the fourteen months remaining in an unexpired Senate term. When Revels arrived in the Senate chamber, three Democratic senators did their best to prevent the Senate from accepting him as a member. They charged that he could not have been a citizen for the nine years required by the Constitution, since even free blacks were not considered citizens before 1866. His supporters countered that he had been a voter many years earlier in Ohio and thus was certainly a citizen. After two days of debate, the majority Republicans prevailed and the Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Revels. Most of the opposing votes were cast by senators from the former border states of Delaware, Maryland, and Kentucky.
Less than a month after he entered the Senate, Revels delivered his maiden speech on the Senate floor, with a crowd of onlookers filling the galleries. At issue was a bill readmitting Georgia to representation in the Union with a House amendment that could be used to prevent blacks from holding state office. Recognizing that he was new to the body, Revels nonetheless considered the matter to be of such importance to African American citizens that he felt impelled to speak out. He stressed the responsible behavior of most slaves during the war, when they might have engaged in a bloody revolt, and declared that black citizens "ask but the rights which are theirs by God's universal law." He denounced the House amendment to the readmission bill that would retain in office, regardless of any decision by the legislature, judges who had ruled that blacks had no right to hold office in the state. In conclusion, he declared, "I protest in the name of truth and human rights against any and every attempt to fetter the hands of one hundred thousand white and colored citizens of the state of Georgia."
The Senate, however, did not heed Revels' plea and retained the objectionable amendment when it passed the bill. Through the remainder of his brief term, Revels often spoke out on issues of civil rights and education for black Americans. When he completed his service in March 1871, Hiram Revels returned to Mississippi, where he later became president of Alcorn University.
Reprinted from Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.