On February 25, 1870 Hiram Rhoades Revels, a preacher from Mississippi was sworn into the United States Senate. That occasion marked the first time a man of African descent served in either house of congress.
While his service is a landmark in American history, Revels would not seek a second term but did go on to distinguish himself in the field of education, becoming the first president of what is now Alcorn State University. His stint in office was also a rather quiet one though it presumably gave some satisfaction to many Northerners since he took the vacant seat of Jefferson Davis. It seems likely that diarist George Templeton Strong captured something of contemporary opinion in his meticulously written entry of March 17, 1870:
One Revels, an Ethiop from Mississippi (or perhaps only a mulatto or octaroon [he was, in fact, a quadroon, or one quarter black]) has been making a speech in his place as U.S. Senator. Ten years ago we should have thought a Feejee President not more absurdly improbable. The world does move, & the arrogant folly of Southern swashbucklers & fanatics in 60 and 61 gave it a shove such as it has not felt for centuries. The Fr[ench] Revolution took more time & its causes had been longer at work. O Jeff: Davis, aint this a Go? What do you think of the gemman [sic], who sits in your seat, & represents your own — your be-yuteous — your chivalr-r-r-ric state? To this have all your intriguings and blusterings and proclamations and conscriptions come at last!
In his facetiousness, Strong also hints at the poignancy of Revels’ achievement. Despite sitting in the highest legislative body in the country, racism prevailed even among supporters of the Union. Strong goes on to express this with shocking clarity:
His presence in the Senate is the assertion of a principle. Perhaps it may prove desirable to repeat the assertion every fifteen years or so, but as a general rule colored persons can be made more useful in other fields of labor.
As disconcerting as the statement is, Strong’s concluding choice of words makes it even worse. It’s unclear whether he consciously chose “fields” but regardless, its detestable connotation drives home the point with a shockingly heavy blow.
Though sobering, fortunately for twenty-first century Americans Strong’s words fade into the background of history with the knowledge that Revels’ term was the initial step in what has gladly surpassed the mere “assertion of a principle.” As this year’s Black History Month draws to a close , we can take great joy in remembering Revels’ pioneering contribution to American history.