When Senator Hiram Revels of Mississippi—the first African American to serve in Congress—toured the United States in 1871, he was introduced as the “Fifteenth Amendment in flesh and blood.” The North Carolina-born preacher personified African-American emancipation and enfranchisement.
On January 20, 1870, the state legislature chose Revels to briefly occupy a U.S Senate seat, previously vacated by Albert Brown when Mississippi seceded from the union in 1861. As senator Henry Wilson of Massachusetts escorted Revels to the front of chamber to take his oath the large crowd was anxious to get a view. Revels’ triumph was short-lived. When his appointment expired the following year, a leading white Republican, former Confederate general James Alcorn, took his place for a full six-year term.
In many ways, Revels’ service foreshadowed that of the black representatives who succeeded him during Reconstruction—a period of Republican-controlled efforts to reintegrate the South into the Union. They were largely symbols of Union victory in the Civil War and of the triumph of Radical Republican idealism in Congress.
The African-American Representatives also symbolized a new democratic order in the United States. These men demonstrated not only courage, but also relentless determination. They often braved elections marred by violence and fraud. They balanced the needs of black and white constituents in their Southern districts, and they argued passionately for legislation promoting racial equality. However, even in South Carolina, a state that was seemingly dominated by black politicians, African-American members never achieved the level of power wielded by their white colleagues during Reconstruction.
Source: The Fifteenth Amendment in the Flesh and Blood: The Symbolic Generation of Black Americans in Congress, 1870-1887
U.S. House of Representatives: Office of the Historian and Office of Art and Archives