February 25th 1870: Hiram Rhodes Revels inaugurated

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Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827 – 1901)

On this day in 1870 Hiram Rhodes Revels, the first African-American to sit in Congress, was inaugurated into the Senate as a Republican representing Mississippi. Before he was elected to the Senate, Revels was a Methodist minister and led black Union regiments during the Civil War. The passage of the fourteenth amendment in 1868 provided legal equality for African-Americans recently freed from slavery, paving the way for them to be elected to public office. Revels gained his post after the Mississippi state legislature voted for Revels to fill one of the state’s Senate seats which had been vacant since Mississippi seceded.

 

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1870 letter from the Mississippi Governor certifying Revels’s election as United States Senator

His appointment was initially resisted by the Senate, and his legitimacy was debated for several days. On February 25th, the Senate voted to allow Revels to take up his seat, with only Republicans voting for him and Democrats against. His inauguration that day received a standing ovation as the Senate witnessed the first African-American member of Congress joining their ranks. Revels served one term in the Senate, consistently pushing for racial equality, until he resigned in 1871 to become a college president. Revels is an important and under-acknowledged figure in American history. Revels paved the way for other African-Americans to shatter the glass ceiling and reach the upper rungs of government. He defied those who questioned the ability of freed blacks to integrate into society and was the embodiment of political integrity and eloquence. Without Revels there may not have been a Robert Weaver (first African-American cabinet member), a Thurgood Marshall (first African-American Supreme Court justice), or even a Barack Obama (first African-American President).

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