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Opinion | There Have Been 10 Black Senators Since Emancipation

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Hiram Revels is worth remembering as both a pioneer of black political power and a refutation of racist stereotypes. Born free in Fayetteville, N.C., in 1827, he studied at religious seminaries in Indiana and Ohio and at Knox College in Illinois. Ordained as a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1845, he traveled the Midwest as an itinerant missionary and courageously ventured into the upper South to bring religious instruction to slaves. When the Civil War broke out, Revels was working in Baltimore as an A.M.E. minister and the principal of a high school for black students. He came to Union-occupied Mississippi in 1864 and threw himself into educating the former slaves.

Revels’s political career began in 1868, when Union general Adelbert Ames, the state’s provisional governor, appointed him as an alderman in Natchez. He was soon elected to the State Senate. Mississippi’s lawmakers, who included almost three dozen African-Americans, chose Ames for one vacant United States Senate term and Revels for the year that remained of another.

In an anticipation of recent efforts to deny the citizenship of Mr. Obama, the Senate’s small contingent of Democrats challenged Revels’s right to take his seat. The Constitution requires a senator to have been a citizen for at least nine years. But black citizenship, Democrats insisted, had only been established by the Civil Rights Act of 1866 and the 14th Amendment, ratified in 1868. Some even claimed that the prewar Dred Scott decision, which limited citizenship to whites, remained the law of the land. But by a vote of 48 to 8 the Senate chose to seat Revels.

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During his year in office, Revels later wrote, “I did all I could for the benefit of my needy and much imposed-upon people.” He spoke vigorously for the reinstatement of black legislators who had been illegally expelled from Georgia’s General Assembly. He persuaded Secretary of War William W. Belknap to arrange for black mechanics to be hired for the first time at the Baltimore Navy Yard. When a bill to establish a free public education system in the nation’s capital came before the Senate, Revels strenuously opposed an amendment to allow racial segregation in school admissions. But the amendment passed, and the District of Columbia’s school system was not integrated until the mid-1950s.

Despite his outspoken statements against racial discrimination, Revels was far more conservative than other Mississippi black political leaders. He believed that the “unavoidably poor and ignorant colored people” needed moral and religious guidance from well-disposed whites. In 1890, Mississippi’s constitutional convention stripped the state’s black population of its right to vote through ostensibly race-neutral requirements, including payment of a poll tax and the ability to explain a portion of the State Constitution. Revels’s response was to call on blacks to seek “the confidence, respect and protection of those white citizens who have the influence and power to protect them, winning their respect by their industry.” This was essentially the political strategy Booker T. Washington would advocate five years later in his celebrated speech at the Atlanta Cotton States Exposition.



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