In late January 1870 a tall, heavy-set man in his late forties, black but of light complexion, strode purposefully into the corridors of the U.S. Capitol. He wore white gloves, a dignified long black coat, and matching pants and vest, and he carried a dark walking stick. His home state, Mississippi, had recently held a constitutional convention similar to South Carolina’s, and was in the process of gaining readmission to the Union. At the time (and until 1913), U.S. senators were not popularly elected but were selected by the state legislature. When Mississippi’s had convened, its black members had demanded that one of the state’s three open Senate terms go to a black man. Now Hiram Rhodes Revels, a minister and the state’s newly appointed senator, had arrived to claim his seat.
Would Congress accept this “Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood,” as Wendell Phillips called him, an allusion to the amendment passed by Congress in 1869 providing American citizens with the right to vote, regardless “of race, color, or previous condition of servitude”? Throughout the nation’s history prior to emancipation there had been only two known elected black officeholders — the lawyer Macon Allen, who in 1848 won a position as a justice of the peace in Massachusetts, and John Mercer Langston, the great-uncle of the poet Langston Hughes, who in 1855 became a township clerk in Ohio. As recently as 1869 J. Willis Menard, a black Louisianian elected to the U.S. House of Representatives, had been sent home by that body, which refused to acknowledge his election as legitimate.
Two factors made Hiram Revels especially interesting to the Washington establishment. The first was that he had come to “replace” none other than Jefferson Davis, who in 1861 had resigned his Senate seat to become president of the Confederacy, exclaiming, “The time for compromise has passed, and those who oppose us will smell powder and feel Southern steel.” Such a stunning reversal of fortune — black men assuming the places of authority previously held by the leading Confederates — was both meaningful and dramatic; as the black educator and missionary Charlotte Forten noted, “The ‘whirligig of time’ has brought about its revenges.” The other was that Revels was known for speaking his mind; those who knew him said that since he had never been a slave, he lacked the habit of deference to whites. “The Senator elect. . . has a benevolent expression, a pleasant, impressive voice, and speaks with directness, as one thoroughly convinced of the views entertained,” marveled one observer, while the New York Herald noted, “The distinguished darky made quite a sensation” huddling with one of his chief white supporters, Senator Sumner of Massachusetts, the two men “thus practically illustrating the idea of political and social equality.” “Happy Revels” crowed another account. “He is of popular manners and speaks with great ease, fluency, and generally in good taste. In his intercourse with all classes he conducts himself with decorousness.”
Even other men of color considered Revels a curious figure, for Mississippi had never had a large free black population. He was born in 1822 in North Carolina, where, even though his family were not slaves, their freedoms were sharply curtailed after the 1831 slave insurrection led by Nat Turner in neighboring Virginia. Determined to leave the South to receive an education, Revels enrolled at a Quaker seminary in Indiana and briefly attended Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois; he later went as a missionary to Kansas, where he tended to the spiritual needs of itinerant blacks and lectured against intemperance. He was arrested in 1854 “for preaching the gospel to Negroes” in neighboring Missouri, a slave state where abolitionists were making strong inroads. Returning east during the war, he served as chaplain to Maryland’s first black regiment and later went south to work for the Freedmen’s Bureau, helping to organize schools. Peacetime found him back in Kansas, where an account from the town of Leavenworth commends him for “adding 191 to the church [and] killing off two whiskey shops kept by colored men.” Within a few years Revels was living in Adams County, Mississippi, in the river-bluff town of Natchez, where blacks were beginning to take an active role in state politics.
Being something of a political cipher may have helped Revels rise to prominence. According to John Roy Lynch, a young but influential city politician (and future congressman), Revels “had never voted, had never attended a political meeting, and of course, had never made a political speech. But he was a colored man and presumed to be a Republican, and believed to be a man of ability and considerably above the average in point of intelligence.” He was also a property owner and a solid family man, married to the former Phoeba Bass of Zanesville, Ohio, with a growing brood that would eventually include six children, all daughters. A dutiful letter-writer when away on his frequent travels, Revels could be counted on to enclose some small amount of money, along with the request that Phoeba “kiss the children for me” and admonitions to his girls to “love God [and] live close to Him.”
Revels apparently overcame his initial fears about getting involved in politics, becoming a moderate but loyal member of the party of emancipation. “If ever influenced by the friendship of your Democratic neighbor, you desert the Republican flag, desert the Republican standard, desert the Republican Party that has freed you,” he once told his constituents, “you will be voting away your last liberties.” Would the Democrats rescind those rights if they were to return to power? “They will do it,” Revels declared, “as certainly as the sun shines in the heavens.”When in 1868 a Republican nominating convention in Adams County deadlocked while trying to pick a man to run for the state senate, Lynch put the kindly Revels forward as a compromise candidate.
That year saw a divisive presidential campaign between General Ulysses S. Grant and the Democratic governor of New York, Horatio Seymour. Southern Democrats warned that Reconstruction as carried out by the Radical Republicans, who backed Grant, would “Africanize” America, while the Radicals pointed out that the treasonous rebels who refused to accept the consequences of the war needed Grant’s stern authority. In February 1869, just after Grant’s election, Congress approved the Fifteenth Amendment; in spring 1870 it became part of the Constitution. Attaining the vote for black men was greeted by many as the crowning glory of the long crusade for abolition and of the war itself, a means for black Americans to, in Frederick Douglass’s words, “breathe a new atmosphere, have a new earth beneath, and a new sky above.” Wendell Phillips heralded it as the nation’s new beginning — the promise of equality enshrined in the Declaration of Independence at last made real.
Excerpted from Capitol Men: The Epic Story of Reconstruction Through the Lives of the First Black Congressmen by Philip Dray. Copyright © 2010 by (claimant). Used by permission of Houghton Mifflin Harcourt Publishing Company. All rights reserved.