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A freeman his entire life, Hiram Rhodes Revels was the first African American to serve in the U.S. Congress.
Before the Civil War, fewer than 1,000 free black Mississippians had access to a basic education. Thus, leadership from freedmen such as Revels became vital to the Republican Party for rallying the new electorate in the postwar years. It was through his work in education that Revels became involved in politics, taking his first elected position as a Natchez alderman in 1868. He entered politics reluctantly, fearing racial friction and interference with his religious work, but he quickly won over blacks and whites with his moderate and compassionate political opinions.
In 1869, encouraged to run by a friend, future Representative John Roy Lynch, Revels won a seat in the Mississippi state senate. Under the newly installed Reconstruction government, Revels was one of more than 30 African Americans among the state’s 140 legislators.
Revels successfully appealed to the War Department on behalf of black mechanics from Baltimore who were barred from working at the U.S. Navy Yard in early 1871, an accomplishment he recalled with great pride. He died of a paralytic stroke in Aberdeen, Mississippi, on January 16, 1901, while attending a religious conference.