The First Black Man Elected to Congress Was Nearly Blocked From Taking His Seat

Becky Little | History

Hiram Rhodes Revels arrived on Capitol Hill to take his seat as the first black member of the U.S. Congress in 1870. But first, the Mississippi Republican faced Democrats determined to block him.

The Constitution requires senators to hold citizenship for at least nine years, and they argued Revels had only recently become a citizen with the 1866 Civil Rights Act and the 14th Amendment. Before that, the Supreme Court had ruled in its 1857 Dred Scott decision that black people weren’t U.S. citizens.

This technicality wasn’t actually their main issue with Revels. At the time, the Democrats were the party of white southern men, and they simply didn’t want any black men in Congress.

In any case, their bad faith legal argument didn’t hold up. Revel’s fellow Republicans argued he was born a free man in the United States and had lived there all his life. Dred Scott was a bad decision that should’ve never been made, which the Civil Rights Act and 14th Amendment had sought to redress, they argued. Just because the law had only recently recognized black men’s citizenship didn’t mean he was a “new” citizen.

“Mr. Revels, the colored Senator from Mississippi, was sworn in and admitted to his seat this afternoon,” reported The New York Times on February 25, 1870. “Mr. Revels showed no embarrassment whatever, and his demeanor was as dignified as could be expected under the circumstances. The abuse which had been poured upon him and on his race during the last two days might well have shaken the nerves of any one.”

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