Hiram Rhodes Revels, 1827-1901: A Reappraisal

Article excerpt

Among the over two hundred significant national black Reconstruction figures in America during the period 1860-1880, that of Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827-1901) continues to hold a special interest for laymen and scholars. In fact, scholars have generally noted four major contributions made by Revels to Afro-American life. A survey of sixteen writers, equally divided between blacks and whites, indicates that (1) he was an effective Methodist, religious, and educational leader during and after the slavery period; (2) that he served the Union Army during the Civil War as a chaplain for black troops; (3) that he was the first black American elected to the Senate of the United States; and (4) that he was the first president of Alcorn University in Mississippi.(1)

Thus, the prevailing public conception of Revels has been a positive one, even though some scholars, such as E. L. Thornbrough, Gerald E. Wheeler, and Donald L. Singer, have noted that Revels was often too timid and conservative on many of the economic, political, and social questions of his day.(2)

Yet, in spite of his negative stances, Revels has continued to hold a major position in black history. Largely because he was such an important "first," and because of that fact, he has been guaranteed a seat in the first row of black historical memories in this country. In spite of this unique position, however, much about Revels' life and work remains a puzzle and a disappointment. This essay seeks to explore this lesser-known image of Revels during his early life, his middle years, and the concluding decades of his career.

Revels was born a free black of mixed blood in Fayetteville, Cumberland County, North Carolina. He notes in his "Autobiography" that his ancestors ". . . as far back as my knowledge extends, were free."(3) Little is known of his early childhood or of his parents, but he was educated in Fayetteville at a school run by a free black woman. Perhaps her influences as a Southern black educator helped to shape his lifelong interest and commitment to teaching and promoting the educational affairs of Afro-Americans in the North during the 1840s and 1850s, and in the South from the 1860s through the 1890s.

As a young man he worked as a barber, taught school, and advanced his education by attending, in 1844, a Quaker seminary in Libery, Union County, Indiana. He may have received the support of North Carolina Quakers in his efforts to leave the state. He later attended the Drake County Seminary for blacks at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio, and Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois.(4)

It was during the mid 1840s that he developed an interest in the Christian ministry, and in 1845 he was ordained a minister in the

African Methodist Episcopal [A.M.E.] Church in Baltimore, Maryland, a city which contained a large and prosperous free black population before the Civil War. During this period, Revels' brother, Willis Revels, was also an A.M.E. religious leader in Maryland. Due to the nature of his educational and religious work, Revels traveled through over eight states - teaching, lecturing, and serving the religious needs of black congregations in Maryland, Illinois, Indiana, Ohio, Missouri, Tennessee, Kentucky, and Kansas.(5)

During the Civil War years, 1861-1865, he is given credit for helping to organize the first two black regiments in Maryland, and later one in Missouri, where he also established a school for black youth. During the war, he served as a Union chaplain for black troops and aided the Freedmen's Bureau in the establishment of schools in Mississippi. After the war he also lived in Kansas, Missouri, and Louisiana. After this period he served as a presiding elder of the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Natchez, Mississippi, where in 1868 he was elected alderman, and from there he went to the Mississippi State Senate in 1869.(6)

Revels' earlier educational advantages and opportunities to become a leader played an important part in his activities in Mississippi. …