Hiram Revels: First African-American in Congress

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Hiram Revels was the first African-American in Congress. A free man, he worked tirelessly for the abolitionist cause and for the Union during the Civil War. He was rewarded for his service with a seat in the U.S. Senate.

Revels was born a free man even though he was born in a state that allowed slavery. He was born in 1822 in Fayetteville, N.C. When he was 16, he got a job as an apprentice to his brother, Elias, who was a barber in Lincolnton, N.C. Elias died in 1841, leaving Hiram to manage the shop.

Not long after, Hiram made his way to Indiana, where he studied at a Quaker school in Liberty. He went to school in Ohio as well and was ordained as a minister by the African Methodist Church, for which he traveled to many states across the center of the country, including Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Missouri, Ohio, and Tennessee.

With the coming of the Civil War, Revels threw himself into supporting the Union cause, helping organize African-American regiments of troops in Maryland, a so-called "border state," which had many people on both sides of the war. He also moved to Missouri, another border state, and helped organize African-American troops there in 1863. He even went deep into the South to serve as chaplain for a Mississippi regiment of free African-Americans there.

Revels settled in Mississippi after the Civil War ended and joined the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Natchez. He helped build new churches across the South. He also continued to impress people around him with his ability to cool political tensions and also build coalitions, two skills that politicians need in abundance.

In 1870, he was elected to the Mississippi State Senate, the first African-American so elected. He didn't serve very long in that capacity because he was also elected to the U.S. Senate, to fill the seat vacated by Confederacy President Jefferson Davis.

Revels served for little more than a year, but he became the first African-American member of Congress all the same. He finished Davis's term and returned to Mississippi, where he served as president of Alcorn College and in other political and religious positions. He also became editor of a newspaper called the Southwest Christian Advocate. He died on January 16, 1901 while attending a church service in Aberdeen, Miss.

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