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But in the zeal to tell the story of this great institution, legend and lore have sometimes overwhelmed historical facts. Separating fact from fiction — always an essential part of telling it like it really was — has required a great deal of effort from a of scholars.


Hiram Revels subverted slave states and recruited soldiers in the Civil War. In the years since he took office, he remains one of only 11 Black senators ever elected or appointed. When Hiram Rhodes Revels traveled to Washington inhe brought a historic piece of paper with him: a handwritten document certifying his right to serve in the United States Senate. Revels was poised to become the first Black person to serve in Congress. Instead, the United States-born politician faced stiff debate from future colleagues over whether he was a citizen.

Revels was born in North Carolina in The son of free Black parents, he was trained as a barber, but later pursued an education and a career as a preacher. Ordained in the African Methodist Episcopal Church, he traveled extensively, preaching throughout the Midwest and South.

Revels challenged the social order in states like Missouri, which forbade free Black people to immigrate to the state and outlawed both preaching to and teaching Black people. Though Revels tried to sidestep the law by avoiding sermons that might instigate rebellion—the supposed reason behind forbidding free Black people from moving to Missouri—he was imprisoned for preaching in and left Missouri soon after.

Afterward, he founded schools and even protested segregation when his family was ased seats in the smoking car of a train despite paying for a first-class seat. After he protested, they took their place in the first-class car. InRevels moved to Natchez, Mississippi, where he built a reputation as a respected community leader.

It also brought him to the attention of Reconstruction Republicans, who encouraged him to run for political seats that were finally open to Black politicians. Inhe was elected alderman of Natchez. And inunder the old system in which state legislatures selected national senators, he accepted an appointment to the U. When Revels went to Washington in Februarythough, he met with an obstacle: Democratic Senators determined to block him from national service.

They argued he had only been an American citizen sincewhen the Supreme Court overturned its Dred Scott decisionwhich had claimed African Americans were not U. Revels was only admitted to the Senate after a lengthy, and passionate, debate.

While in the Senate, Revels fought to reinstate Black legislators who had been pushed out of office in Georgia and opposed segregated schools in the District of Columbia. But despite his historic role, Revels has been criticized for doing too little to help Black Americans and for supporting amnesty for former Confederate slaveholders during his Senate service.

When his brief Senate term expired, he returned to Mississippi in March After he left the Senate inMississippi passed laws—part of a wave of new Jim Crow laws —blocking Black people from political participation. Revels and Bruce are still the only two Black senators from Mississippi.

Senate—including, most recently, Raphael Warnock of Georgia.

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