In the spirit of Black History month, which I have done little to recognize, I want to celebrate Hiram Rhodes Revels, who was born on this day in 1827. Revels was the first African American to serve in the United States Congress. Revels was born in Fayetteville, North Carolina, raised there, and began his adult life as a barber in Lincolnton.
I never heard of Revels until I was an adult and I didn’t know much about him until very recently. Yet, in school, I learned a lot about Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, Stonewall Jackson, and host of other people who abandoned the country to fight for the Confederacy. That’s what systemic racism looks like. The school system in this state ignored a man who truly made history and never taught us that African Americans from the South served honorably and then disappeared from Congress after the onset of Jim Crow.
In fact, the last African American in Congress following Reconstruction was George Henry White, who was also from North Carolina. In his farewell address to Congress, White said, “This is perhaps the Negroes’ temporary farewell to the American Congress, but let me say, Phoenix-like he will rise up some day and come again. These parting words are in behalf of an outraged, heart-broken, bruised and bleeding, but God-fearing people; faithful, industrious, loyal, rising people – full of potential force.” More than a century later, that day is on the horizon.
Back to Revels. He was born as a free person of color and raised in Fayetteville where he was educated by a Black woman. He moved to Lincolnton to apprentice with his brother as barber. After his brother died, Revels took over the business. He later attended seminary in Indiana and became a minister in the AME church. He moved around for several years, including serving as a chaplain to troops during the Civil War.
He moved to Mississippi after the war ended and served as a preacher and helped establish schools for Black children. He was elected Alderman in Natchez, Mississippi, and was then appointed to serve in the United States Senate, becoming the first African American in Congress. After a one-year term, he became a college president before being appointed to a full term in the Senate in 1876. After he left Congress, he stayed active in the church and taught theology. He died in Mississippi in 1901.
History, they say, is written by the winners. Thirty-five years after the hostilities ended, former, but unreconstructed, Confederates won the war. They wrote people like Hiram Revels and George White out of our history books. It’s time to bring them back and celebrate them. Maybe they deserve a place on the capitol grounds in Raleigh.
Thomas Mills is the founder and publisher of PoliticsNC.com. Before beginning PoliticsNC, Thomas spent twenty years as a political and public affairs consultant. Learn more >