–by William C. diGiacomantonio
On 25 February 1870, Hiram Revels (1827-1901) presented his credentials from the state of Mississippi, which had been readmitted to the Union just two days earlier, and took his seat in the U.S. Senate as the first African American to serve in Congress. Born of freed black parents in the North Carolina piedmont, the 42-year-old Revels had migrated through Indiana, Illinois, Ohio, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, Tennessee, Missouri, and Louisiana as an educator and Methodist minister before settling in Natchez, Mississippi in the immediate aftermath of the Civil War.
Reconstruction-era policies gave newly-freed African Americans unprecedented access to both the voting booth and state legislatures. Revels was elected to the state senate in 1869. One of the most pressing tasks that fell to the southern states’ legislatures after the war was to resume their election of senators to Congress. (U.S. senators would not be elected directly by the people until ratification of the 17th amendment in 1913.) Mississippi’s new U.S. senators, once seated, would face reelection in 1871 and 1875, respectively; the latter seat had belonged to Jefferson Davis, former president of the Confederacy. State Republicans saw the election of an African American to one of these seats as a symbolic victory; state Democrats (who had largely supported secession in 1861) saw electing an African American as a chance for Republicans to shoot themselves in the foot, by showing the ridiculous extremes to which their “Radical Reconstruction” policies would lead. With votes from both parties in the state legislature, Hiram Revels was elected to the term due to expire the very next year.
Revels was not the first African American elected to Congress. John W. Menard, Representative-elect for Louisiana, holds that distinction. But Democrats in Congress succeeded in challenging those election returns. The same strategy might have been resorted to for preventing Revels’s being seated—except that it is harder to dispute the election count of a small legislature than of an entire congressional district in the midst of radical transformation and electoral irregularities. So Senate Democrats chose a different tack: they insisted that Revels had not met the nine-years’ citizenship threshold required by the Constitution. By passing the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the Fourteenth Amendment (ratified in 1868), Congress itself—they maintained—had recognized that African Americans were not truly citizens up to that time, just as the Supreme Court had ruled in the Dred Scott case of 1857. Senate Republicans insisted, on the contrary, that the Act and the Amendment conferred instant citizenship. After a lengthy debate marked by lofty claims of equality and cheap pandering to racist principles, and by a vote of 48 to 8, Revels was seated at 4:40 p.m. on 25 February 1871.