October 4, 2008
he Senate galleries were packed, filled with both black and white spectators, and a murmur filled the air as the nation's first black member of Congress, Sen. Hiram Revels, stood to deliver his first speech to the chamber. Nearly 140 years before Sen. Barack Obama's historic quest to become the nation's first black president, Revels captivated a nation in the midst of social upheaval following the Civil War. The date was March 16, 1870, less than five years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.
"I rise," Revels said, "with feelings which perhaps (have) never before entered into the experience of this body."
Revels, a 42-year-old Mississippi Republican, was a product of postwar Reconstruction, when Republicans — including white northerners known as "carpetbaggers" and black southerners — dominated state governments in the South. The Mississippi Legislature, in which Revels served, voted with the backing of its black members to send him to the U.S. Senate. (Senators weren't popularly elected until 1913.)
"It would in their judgment be a weakening blow against color line prejudice," Revels wrote in his brief autobiography.
Revels was born free in Fayetteville, N.C., and like Obama, was of mixed-race background. Revels' mother was white, of Scottish heritage, and his father was black with possibly some Croatan Indian lineage.
He spent much of his career as a minister, and was once imprisoned in Missouri for preaching the gospel to blacks. He wrote that his preaching was generally tolerated in slave states as long as he didn't encourage slaves to run away. During the Civil War, he helped organize black regiments for the Union Army.
In his first Senate speech, which The Washington Post later called "the sensation of the town," he quickly made a point of assuring whites that they had nothing to fear from blacks seeking payback for slavery. Continue reading