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'Proud that he was from here': First Black U.S. congressman's North Carolina roots

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Photograph shows Hiram R. Revels (1827-1901) who was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Senate, representing the state of Mississippi from 1870-1871. (Source: Flickr Commons project, 2021) African American legislator. Photo Courtesy of Library of Congress, Manuscript Division, Brady-Handy Collection.

North Carolina native Hiram Revels was the first Black person to serve in the U.S. Senate. But his legacy expands beyond his time in the Senate, and his roles in ministry and education solidify his influence.

Kelli Cardenas Walsh, an associate professor of history at Fayetteville State University, said Revels was born in Fayetteville on Sept. 27, 1827.

Though no one has confirmed the identity of his parents, it is known that his family was never enslaved, Walsh said.

When Revels was 10 or 11, he moved to Lincolnton, N.C. to apprentice for his older brother, who was a barber, she said. She said being a barber was the first career path Revels took in his life.

After leaving Lincolnton as a young adult, Revels pursued theology. Walsh said he did most of his work through the African Methodist Episcopal Church and traveled through Kansas, Indiana and Maryland to minister.

Walsh said Revels also worked as a chaplain in the Union army during the Civil War. She said he worked in Vicksburg, Miss., when the Union overtook the area on July 4, 1863 — a turning point in the war. 

Following the end of the war, the seat in Congress that belonged to the former president of the Confederate States of America, Jefferson Davis, was open. The Republican Party insisted that one of the vacant seats be filled by a Black member of the party, and the Mississippi state legislature appointed Revels to the U.S. Senate to fill Davis' vacant seat on Feb. 25, 1870.

“I just think that's beautiful irony, considering we're just coming out of the war and the person who was the president of the Confederacy who can no longer hold office is replaced by an African-American gentleman,” Walsh said

Walsh said Revels only served as a senator for one year, as he finished the term started by Davis.

While in the Senate, Revels gave a speech advocating for the desegregation of schools. He continued his ministry work during his time in the Senate, Walsh said.

Shari Revels-Davis, founder and educational director of Hiram Revels East, said Revels was specifically dedicated to educating Black people. Revels was the first president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi.

“He actually believed in the education of the negro that he helped bring up this college and supported it,” she said. 

Revels-Davis said she celebrates the day Revels was appointed to the Senate every year.

“Many people have no clue who Hiram is, especially I’m surprised even during Black history month, he is never spoken of,” she said.

She said she is passionate about supporting underrepresented students. Hiram Revels East was founded in his honor.

Through Hiram Revels East, Revels-Davis said she provides free college workshops for high schoolers and their parents, alongside a $250 scholarship.

Leisa Greathouse a content and development historian with the N.C. History Center on the Civil War, Emancipation and Reconstruction and a Fayetteville native — said she is proud to be from the same city as Revels.

“I think North Carolina can be proud that he was from here,” Greathouse said.

Revels was commemorated with a marker in Fayetteville including information about his birth place and his time in Congress. A similar marker in Lincolnton mentions the barbershop he owned there.

“Hearing stories from history is tough,” Greathouse said. “But as you keep reading you find someone like Hiram Revels, and you feel a glimmer of light shining that gives hope, when those little bits of progress come to fruition.”

@sierrapresident

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