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June 17, 2020

The legacy of Hiram Revels

By Eileen Donovan

“I appeal to the legislative enactments of this Congress, and ask if now, in the hour when a reconstructed state most needs support, this Senate, which hitherto has done so nobly, will not give it such legislation as it needs.” –– Senator Hiram Revels (R-MS) on March 16th, 1870.i

Visitors to the Kennedy Institute have the opportunity to see the face of every single United States senator appear on our People of the Senate exhibit wall. Students and visitors alike are always quick to note some of the big changes they see in quantity and political affiliations of senators. It might take a moment longer, but many are also able to note what does not change in the Senate –– diversity of race, gender, and age –– as the nearly 2000 faces scroll by.

As the Institute joins people and organizations across the country to celebrate Juneteenthii, the true end to slavery in the United States, we wish to reflect on the important impact of the country’s first African-American senator, Hiram Revels (R-MS, 1870-1871).

Hiram Revels was appointed by the Mississippi legislature in 1870 during the Reconstruction era following the Civil War. Prior to his appointment, Revels was a renowned pastor with the African-Methodist Episcopal Church, an educator in Baltimore, a chaplain with the Union army during the Civil War, and a member of the Mississippi state legislature.iii

His accomplishments and speechmaking prowess made him a ready choice for Congress. However, his appointment to the Senate was fraught as opponents masked discomfort with his race through questions of his citizenship. The Constitution requires that people must be citizens for at least nine years before serving in the Senate.iv Challengers to Revels serving argued that the ratification of the 14th and 15th Amendments, ratified in 1868 and 1870 respectively, meant that he, along with most African-Americans, had not met the necessary citizenship requirements to become a senator.v However, enough legislators recognized the importance and need of an African-American man in the Senate that Revels successfully won the appointment.

During his one year in the Senate, Revels advocated for equal education for black communities, ending segregation, and furthering civil rights for African-Americans. Revels used his first speech on the Senate floor to speak on behalf of allowing Georgia to reenter the United States of America. In his speech, he appealed for the rights of African Americans saying:

  • ​“They ask but the rights which are theirs by God’s universal law, and which are the natural outgrowth, the logical sequence of the condition in which the legislative enactments of this nation have placed them. They appeal to you and to me to see that they receive that protection which alone will enable them to pursue their daily avocations with success and enjoy the liberties of citizenship on the same footing with their white neighbors and friends.”vi

The protections for African-Americans that he appealed for were short lived after the Reconstruction era as civil and voting rights were quickly restricted while segregation, oppression, and racism reigned on.

At the Institute, staff answer the question “Who was the first African American senator?” every day. But after sharing Revels’s legacy, the following question is frequently “who else?” Since Revels, only nine other black senators have served in the United States Senate. They include Blanche K. Bruce (R-MS, 1875-1881), Edward Brooke (R-MA, 1967-1979), Carol Mosely Braun (D-IL, 1993-1999), Barack Obama (D-IL, 2005-2008), Roland W. Burris (D-IL, 2008-2010), Tim Scott (R-SC, 2015-current), William “Mo’‘ Cowan (D-MA, 2013), Cory Booker (D-NJ, 2013-current), and Kamala Harris (D-CA, 2017-current). Of the 10 total senators, only three served at least one full term of six years.

The questions posed to Institute staff asking who were the few Senate “firsts” often lead to meaningful conversations about race, systemic discrimination, and efforts pioneered by those like Senator Revels toward equality and justice. Now more than ever following the recent murders of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Rayshard Brooks, and many others, we acknowledge that conversation and seeking to understand is still important. But, more so, we can all join in the effort to effect change, by raising our voices, and by using the power so many before us fought for –– our right to vote.

Read a statement from Co-Founder and President of the Board Victoria Reggie Kennedy about recent protests against police brutality here. Explore the Institute’s ongoing work on voting, youth activism, and civic education here. More readings on Hiram Revels and Juneteenth can be found below.

i Revels, Hiram R. “The State of Georgia,” March 16th, 1870. U.S., Congress, Senate, Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 2nd sess., pp. 1986–88.
ii Wolde-Michael, “The Historical Legacy of Juneteenth“ National Museum of African American History and Culture and Henry Louis Gates, Jr. “What is Juneteenth” The Root,
iii From Robert C. Byrd, The Senate, 1789-1989: Classic Speeches, 1830-1993. Washington, D.C.: Government Printing Office, 1994.
iv United States Constitution, Article I, Section III.
v Senate Historical Office, “Senate Stories: Hiram Revels, America’s First African American Senator”
vi Revels, Hiram R. “The State of Georgia,” March 16th, 1870. U.S., Congress, Senate, Congressional Globe, 41st Cong., 2ndd sess., pp. 1986–88.

The Edward M. Kennedy Institute for the United States Senate is a nonprofit, nonpartisan, civic education organization in Boston envisioned by the late Senator Edward M. Kennedy. Through a range of exhibits, interactive educational offerings, and topical programs, the Institute engages students and visitors in a conversation about the essential role each person plays in our democracy and in our society.