On this day in 1787, the U.S. Constitution was signed. The U.S. Capitol Historical Society is pleased to share this learning activity to highlight the 15th and 17th Amendments.
“[The] Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood.” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips referring to Sen. Hiram R. Revels
The twenty-two African American men elected to the United States Congress from the end of the Civil War to the turn of the twentieth century generally had a number of characteristics in common: almost all were born and raised in slavery in the Southern states that made up the Confederacy; they were committed to ending slavery even if it meant taking up arms; they were brave men with strong family values, dedicated to educating themselves, their children and other enslaved people; and they were inherently sympathetic to the North and to the Republican Party of Abraham Lincoln. One of the most evocative African-Americans of Congress in this period was Hiram Rhodes Revels.
Hiram Revels, a biography
Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American elected to the United States Senate. His father was an African American Baptist preacher and his mother was of Scottish descent. Hiram was born on September 27, 1827, in Fayetteville, North Carolina. Although his family was free, his childhood was full of sorrow over the suffering of enslaved people. He studied at the Union County Quaker seminary in Indiana and Knox Academy in Galesburg, Illinois. He was ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore in 1845.
When the Civil War began, Revels helped organize Maryland’s first two black regiments for the Union Army. After the Civil War, he settled in Natchez, Mississippi. Following a term as city alderman in 1868, he was elected to the state Senate in 1869. The state legislature elected Revels to the United States Senate on January 20, 1870 to fill the unexpired term of former Senator Jefferson Davis. Davis resigned from the Senate in 1861 to become president of the Confederacy. On February 25, 1870, Hiram Revels took his seat as the first African-American United States Senator. His term ended on March 3, 1871.
Once in Congress, Revels was appointed to the Committee of Education and Labor and the District of Columbia Committee. He introduced legislation to increase cotton production with an appropriation of more than $2 million to farmers in need and for the repair of levees on the Mississippi River. He advocated integrating the public schools of the District of Columbia and opposed the banning of African-American mechanics from working at the Washington Navy Yard.
When his term in Congress ended, Revels became president of Alcorn University in Mississippi and later served as Mississippi’s interim Secretary of State in 1873. In 1882, he retired and returned to his former church as a pastor in Holly Springs, Mississippi, while teaching theology at Shaw University until his death on January 16, 1901.
The Fourteenth Amendment granted citizenship to formerly enslaved people. These new citizens, however, did not have voting rights. Congressional representation decreased in states that denied African Americans the right to vote. When the Fifteenth Amendment was ratified on February 3, 1870, just twenty-two days before Hiram R. Revels began serving his term, it ensured suffrage for African American men regardless of “previous condition of servitude.” Abolitionist Wendell Phillips called Revels the “Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood.” The first African American Members of Congress, including Revels, were elected by their state legislatures. Ratification of the Seventeenth Amendment in 1913 gave this election power to the citizens of each state. Hiram R. Revels began the legacy of African American men and women who have served in the United States Congress.