Before Obama made his mark, there was one man every black politician owes their debt to one man: Hiram R. Revels.
Hiram Rhodes Revels was a Republican U.S. Senator and the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate.
Born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, on September 27, 1827, to free people of color of African American, European, and Native American ancestry, Revels initially worked as a barber after living with his older brother in Lincolnton, North Carolina.
He was apprenticed as a barber in his brother Elias’s shop. After Elias died in 1841, his widow Mary transferred the shop to Hiram Revels.
In 1845, Revels was ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME).
Hiram R. Revels served as a preacher and teacher throughout the Midwest and met a great deal of opposition, including being imprisoned in Missouri in 1854.
Revels served as a chaplain in the United States Army after the outbreak of the American Civil War, and his efforts helped recruit and organize two black Union regiments.
In 1866, he settled in Natchez, Mississippi, and was elected as an alderman in Natchez in 1868. He was elected to represent Adams County in the Mississippi State Senate.
In 1870, Revels was elected in the Mississippi legislature to finish the term of one of the state’s vacant two seats in the U.S. Senate. Upon his arrival in Washington, D.C., Revels debated against Southern Democrats who opposed seating him, an argument Revels eventually won.
Hiram R. Revels was an ardent supporter of racial equality and worked hard to highlight the capability of African Americans to his fellow senators, and during his time, he served on the Committee of Education and Labor and the Committee on the District of Columbia.
Although Revels’ term only lasted from February 25, 1870, to March 3, 1871, he spent his time pushing for equality.
Some of his notable achievements in this time included speaking out against an amendment to keep Washington, D.C., schools segregated and nominating a young black man to the United States Military Academy. He also championed the cause of black workers who were barred from working at the Washington Navy Yard due to their color.
After his term as senator, Revels became the first president of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University), teaching philosophy.
He worked sporadically in politics between 1873 and his retirement in 1882, including serving as Mississippi’s secretary of state.
Hiram R. Revels passed away from a stroke on January 16, 1901, at 73.
Revels was the first African American to be a senator. His voice as a politician paved the way for famous black orators after him.
Despite political affiliations, we can see the influence of Revels in later figures, from Malcolm X to Johnnie Cochran. Revels is a shining example to anyone who wants to use their voice for the force of change.