WASHINGTON (RNS) A Methodist minister was honored in a worship service in the shadow of the U.S. Capitol almost a century and a half after he was sworn in as the first African-American member of Congress.
Sen. Hiram Revels was installed in the Senate on Feb. 25, 1870 at the height of the Reconstruction era. At a service held Thursday, exactly 146 years later, Baptist, Methodist and Catholic leaders joined in recalling his legacy as a political and religious leader who also led African Methodist Episcopal and Methodist churches.
“We thank God for his life and we celebrate his life of being a trailblazer but also being a minister of reconciliation,” said Bishop Lanier Twyman Sr., senior pastor of a Baptist church in Temple Hills, Md.
Tyman said Revels, a Republican from Mississippi who filled a vacated seat, demonstrated love in action by attempting to bridge post-Civil War divides.
“While all the Radical Republicans called for the continued punishment of those ex-Confederates, Revels argued amnesty,” Twyman said. “He said that they should be forgiven.”
Born free in 1827 in North Carolina and college-educated, Revels started his political life in the Mississippi Senate. When the Mississippi legislature convened in 1870, he was asked to open the state Senate in prayer.
“That prayer — one of the most impressive and eloquent prayers that had ever been delivered in the Senate Chamber — made Revels a United States Senator,” wrote John R. Lynch in “The Facts of Reconstruction.” “He made a profound impression upon all who heard him.”
The service, at the United Methodist Building across the street from the U.S. Capitol, was sprinkled with Bible verses about overcoming evil with good.
A newspaper account read during the service noted the solemnity of his swearing-in as a U.S. senator — and the acrimony that preceded the 48-8 vote to seat him.
“When the Vice-President uttered the words, ‘The Senator elect will now advance and take the oath,’ a pin might have been heard drop,” read the account from a New York newspaper. “Mr. Revels showed no embarrassment whatever, and his demeanor was as dignified as could be expected under the circumstances. The vast throng in the galleries showed no sign of feeling one way or the other, and left very quietly.”
The silence of the crowd did not represent disinterest or apathy, said William C. diGiacomantonio, chief historian of the U.S. Capitol Historical Society.
“They’d been told for generations that if black people were given opportunities in legislating the country, the country was going to crumble and they were all tentatively waiting to see what would happen,” he said. “Well, of course, nothing happened.”
During Revels’ brief term, however, he did advocate for change, urging the reseating of black legislators in Georgia and the hiring of black mechanics from Baltimore at the U.S. Navy Yard.
In 1871, Revels returned to Mississippi to serve as president of the former Alcorn University and later edited the Southern Christian Advocate newspaper, a Methodist publication.
He died in 1901 after falling ill at a Methodist conference.
(Adelle M. Banks is production editor and a national reporter for RNS)