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February 2020

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U.S. Census Bureau History: Hiram Rhodes Revels

Hiram Rhodes Revels

After ministering at churches throughout the United States and the Union Army during the American Civil War,
Natchez, MS, voters elected Revels to an alderman's post. One year later, he joined the Mississippi State
Senate representing Adams County. In 1870, the Mississippi State Senate overwhelming elected Revels to
fill one of the state's vacant U.S. Senate seats. Despite Southern Democrats opposition, Revels was seated
in the U.S. Senate on February 25, 1870, to become the nation's first African-American senator.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

On February 25, 1870, African Methodist Episcopal minister and Mississippi Republican politician Hiram Rhodes Revels became the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress. Elected by colleagues in the Mississippi state legislature to fill one of the state's vacant U.S. Senate seats, Revels had to overcome Democrats' bitter opposition to his arrival in Washington, DC. After successfully taking his seat in the Senate chamber, Revels supported legislation to end segregation, advance Reconstruction era (1866–1877) educational opportunities, and heal the divided nation following the end of the American Civil War.

Hiram Rhodes Revels was born to free parents in Fayetteville, NC, on September 27, 1827. After receiving a rudimentary education and apprenticing as a barber with his brother in Lincolnton, NC, Revels followed his father into the ministry, attending seminaries in Union County, IN, and Darke County, OH, and Knox College Link to a non-federal Web site in Galesburg, IL. During the American Civil War, Revels helped recruit two black regiments for the Union Army and served as a Chaplain to black units during the Vicksburg Campaign.

After the war, Revels moved his family to Natchez, MS, where he joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church and focused on improving education for the region's African American children. Natchez voters elected him to an alderman's seat in 1868, where he quickly earned the respect of white and African American residents for his moderation and ability to diffuse racial tension. The following year, Revels won a seat in the Mississippi State Senate—one of dozens of African American legislators in Mississippi's Reconstruction government.

Revels rose to prominence in the state legislature after he delivered its opening prayer in January 1870. Tasked with filling Mississippi's vacant U.S. Senate seats, legislators agreed to select one African American politician to represent the state in Washington, DC. On January 20, 1870, Mississippi state legislators elected Hiram Revels to take the U.S. Senate seat vacated by Albert Brown in 1861. The Senate seat previously held by former Confederate President Jefferson Davis went to Union Army General Adelbert Ames.

The symbolism of Revels arrival in Washington, DC, to fill the seat once belonging to a lawmaker who vacated the seat for the Confederacy was not lost on Senate Republicans. Republican Senator James Nye (NV) declared, "What a magnificent spectacle of retributive justice is witnessed here today! In the place of that proud, defiant man [Jefferson Davis], 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 [one of Mississippi's seats] upon this floor." Following a month of heated debate, the U.S. Senate voted 48 to 8 to seat Hiram Rhodes Revels on February 25, 1870.

U.S. Senator, Hiram Rhodes Revels proved to be a fair and compassionate politician, supporting racial equality, opposing segregated education, and advocating amnesty for former Confederate soldiers and government officials. When his term expired on March 3, 1871, Revels returned to Mississippi to become president of Alcorn College Link to a non-federal Web site—the nation's first African American, land-grant college—founded in 1871. Retiring in 1882, Revels remained active in the church and taught theology at Shaw University (later Rust College Link to a non-federal Web site) in Holly Springs, MS. He died on January 16, 1901, in Aberdeen, MS.

You can learn more about the life of Hiram Rhodes Revels and other pioneering African American lawmakers using census data and records. For example:

  • Hiram Rhodes Revels was born in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, NC, on September 27, 1827. Soon after his birth, Cumberland County had a population of 14,834. Cumberland County's population has witnessed continual growth since the 1930 Census, from 45,219 to an estimated 332,330 in 2018.
  • Although slavery was legal in North Carolina when Hiram Rhodes Revels was born in that state in 1827, his parents were "Free Negroes" or "Free People of Color." In 1830, the population of the United States was 12,866,020, which included 2,328,642 "Negroes"—2,009,043 who were slaves and 319,599 "Free Negroes."
  • Despite North Carolina's 1831 Anti-Literacy Law Link to a non-federal Web site, which made teaching African Americans to read and write illegal, Hiram Rhodes Revels received a rudimentary education from free African American women before apprenticing as a barber in Lincolnton, NC. Revels attended seminaries in Union County, IN, and Darke County, OH, and was ordained as an African Methodist Episcopal minister in 1845.
  • Hiram Rhodes Revels attended Knox College Link to a non-federal Web site in Galesburg, IL, from 1856 to 1857. The following year, he became the first African American minister of the Madison Street Presbyterian Church in Baltimore, MD.
  • Revels moved to Natchez, MS, in 1866 to become the first minister of its Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal Church. Two years later, he was elected a Natchez city alderman. Between 1860 and 1870, the population of Natchez grew from 6,612 to 9,057. The city's population peaked at 23,791 in 1960. In 2018, the historic Mississippi River city was home to 15,009.
  • In 1869, Hiram Rhodes Revels won a Mississippi State Senate seat representing Adams County. Adams County, MS, was the first county to be organized in the Mississippi Territory in 1799. In 1800, the county was home to 4,660, and the population more than doubled to 10,002 by 1810. When Revels took office as the area's state senator in 1870, Adams County, MS, had a population of 19,084. In 2018, 31,192 called Adams County, MS, home.
  • Mississippians Albert G. Brown and future Confederate States of America President Jefferson Davis vacated their seats in the U.S. Senate when the state seceded from the Union in 1861. The seats remained vacant until Mississippi's state legislators elected Hiram Rhodes Revels and General Adelbert Ames to serve the remainder of the terms. Revels arrived in Washington, DC, soon after his election, but could not join his colleagues on the Senate floor until bitter debate concluded and a vote to readmit Mississippi to the Union passed on February 23, 1870.
  • Upon the expiration of his 1-year term in the U.S. Senate, Revels declined several positions offered by President Ulysses S. Grant and returned to Mississippi to become president of Alcorn College Link to a non-federal Web site, in Lorman, Jefferson County, MS. In the decades after the school's 1871 founding, Roots: The Saga of an American Family author Alex Haley, Civil Rights activist Medgar Evers, and National Football League quarterback Steve McNair Link to a non-federal Web site attended Alcorn College.
  • On December 12, 1870—10 months after Hiram Rhodes Revels took his seat in the U.S. Senate—Joseph Hayne Rainey, an ex-slave born in Georgetown, SC, became the first African American to serve in the U.S. House of Representatives. Following four terms in the House, Rainey received an appointment as a special agent of the U.S. Treasury Department in South Carolina. After ventures in banking, coal mining, lumber, and millinery, Rainey died in Georgetown, SC, on August 1, 1887.
  • Within 3 months of Joseph Hayne Rainey taking office in December 1870, five more African American politicians took seats in the U.S. House of Representatives—Jefferson F. Long (GA), Robert C. De Large (SC), Robert B. Elliot (SC), Benjamin S. Turner (SC), and Josiah T. Walls (FL). George H. White (NC), who took office on March 4, 1897, and served until March 3, 1901, was the last African American to serve in the House of Representatives until Oscar Stanton De Priest (IL) took office on March 4, 1929.
  • Unlike Hiram Rhodes Revels who was elected by the Mississippi state legislature to fill just one remaining year of a vacant U.S. Senate seat, Blanche K. Bruce was the first African American to be elected to a full, 6-year U.S. Senate term. At the end of his term in 1881, President James Garfield appointed Bruce as Register of the Treasury. Leaving the Treasury for a 2-year term as recorder of deeds for the District of Columbia (1891-1893), he returned to the Register of the Treasury position from 1897 until his death on March 17, 1898.
  • Pinckney Benton Stewart Pinchback was the first African American governor in the United States. Born free in Macon County, GA, Pinchback was elected to the Louisiana State Senate in 1868, and became acting Lieutenant Governor of Louisiana in 1871. For 6 weeks, between December 9, 1872, and January 13, 1873, Pinchback served as Louisiana's 24th governor when an impeachment trial related to the state's 1872 gubernatorial election Link to a non-federal Web site forced Henry Clay Warmoth to step down.
  • On January 3, 1967, Edward W. Brooke III (MA) became the nation's first African American U.S. Senator since Blanche K. Bruce's departure from the senate chamber on March 3, 1881. Unlike Revels and Bruce, who were elected to the U.S. Senate by their state's legislatures, Brooke was popularly elected by Massachusetts voters. During his two terms in office, Brooke co-authored the Civil Rights Act of 1968 and was a vocal supporter of equal opportunity in banking, voting, and education.
  • On January 3, 1969, Shirley Chisholm (NY) became the first African American woman elected to the U.S. House of Representatives. Twenty-fours years later, Carol Moseley Braun became the first African American woman elected to the U.S. Senate on January 3, 1993.
  • On January 3, 2005, Democrat Barack Obama became the fifth African American in the U.S. Senate representing the state of Illinois. At the 2008 Democratic National Convention in Denver, CO, August 25–28, 2008, the Democratic Party selected Obama to be its 2008 Presidential Candidate. On November 4, 2008, he defeated Republican Senator John McCain to become the nation's 44th president. During his first term in office, President Obama oversaw the 2010 Census, which counted 308,745,538.

Heroes of the Colored Race lithograph

An 1881 lithograph titled, "Heroes of the Colored Race," depicts prominent African-American leaders of the second half of the 19th century. At the center of the portrait is
Frederick Douglass, flanked by Blanche K. Bruce (left) and Hiram Revels (right). Revels and Bruce were the only African Americans to serve as U.S. senators in the 19th century.

In addition to scenes depicting African American life, Douglass, Revels, and Bruce are surrounded by prominent figures who were crucial to the freedom of African Americans,
including Abraham Lincoln and Ulysses S. Grant.

Photo courtesy of the Library of Congress.

Black History Month

Each February, the United States commemorate the contribution of Black Americans with a celebration of Black History Month.

Commemoration of African American history during the month of February began in 1926 with the establishment of "Negro History Week." In 1970, the entire month was designated as "Black History Month."

Since 2020 is a presidential election year, this year's Black History Month theme is "African Americans and the Vote" Link to a non-federal Web site".

According to data collected by the Voting and Registration Supplement to the Census Bureau's Current Population Survey, 59.4 percent of registered African American voters reported they cast ballots during the 2016 Presidential Election.

Frederick Douglass
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Frederick Douglas

Frederick Douglass was born into slavery in Talbot County, MD, on February 14, 1818, and escaped to the North in 1838.

While living in New Bedford, MA, the Massachusetts Anti-Slavery Society urged Douglass to pursue a lecturing and writing career. Fame followed publication of the first of three autobiographies in 1845 and the founding of his anti-slavery newspaper North Star in 1847.

During the Civil War, Douglass was a proponent of emancipation and African-American enlistment in the Union Army. After the war, he served as U.S. marshal for the District of Columbia and the U.S. Minister to Haiti.

Douglass died following a National Council of Women meeting in support of women's suffrage on February 20, 1895.

Today, Douglass' Washington, DC, home is a national historic site.

Herbert Hoover
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Did You Know?

Decades before President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 into law, Secretary of Commerce Herbert Hoover ended racial segregation at the U.S. Census Bureau. A harsh but ineffective rebuke by Senator Coleman L. Blease (D-SC) soon followed.

The Census Bureau has long embraced the hiring of a diverse workforce that is representative of local communities. Learn more about the diversity of our employees at Notable Alumni pages.

Visit https://www.census.gov/history every month for the latest Census History Home Page!

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Source: U.S. Census Bureau | Census History Staff | Last Revised: December 08, 2021