By Professor Damon L. Fordham, MA
Much is being said about Mike Espy’s recent loss in the race for the Senate in Mississippi, but did you know that during Reconstruction in 1870, Mississippi elected the first black Senator in the United States? His name was Hiram Revels. Born free in Fayetteville, North Carolina in 1827, he was a Union Army Chaplain in the Civil War and was later called by the Methodist Church to preach in Natchez, Mississippi before going on to represent Mississippi in the Reconstruction era Senate.
He said these words in 1871:
“I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase. For example, let me remark that it matters not how colored people act, it matters not how they behave themselves, how well they deport themselves, how intelligent they may be, how refined they may be—for there are some colored persons who are persons of refinement; this must be admitted—the prejudice against them is equally as great as it is against the most low and degraded man you can find in the streets of this city or in any other place.
“This Mr. President, I do seriously regret. And is this prejudice right? Have the colored people done anything to justify the prejudice against them that does exist in the hearts of so many white persons, and generally of one great political party in this country? Have they done anything to justify it? No, sir. Can any reason be given why this prejudice should be fostered in so many hearts against them simply because they are not white? I make these remarks in all kindness, and from no bitterness of feeling at all.
“Sir, during the canvass in the state of Mississippi I traveled into different parts of that state, and this is the doctrine that I everywhere uttered: That while I was in favor of building up the colored race I was not in favor of tearing down the white race. Sir, the white race need not be harmed in order to build up the colored race. The colored race can be built up and assisted, as I before remarked, in acquiring property, in becoming intelligent, valuable, useful citizens, without one hair upon the head of any white man being harmed.”
After a year in the senate, Revels served as president of Alcorn State University in Mississippi and taught theology in Rust College in Holly Springs, Mississippi before he died during a church conference in 1901. One of many such forgotten heroes. Read Philip Dray’s book Capital Men to learn more about him.