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Hiram Rhodes Revels
Terre Haute is one of only a few communities that can boast of being the residence of both the first black governor in the United States and the first black U.S. Senator.
Hiram Rhodes Revels, an eloquent Methodist Episcopal minister, arrived in Terre Haute during the 1840s after attending a Quaker seminary in Wayne County, Ind., and graduating from Knox College in Bloomington, Ill. Born free in Fayetteville, N.C., he concluded as a youth that race relations could best be improved through education and religion. The Allen Chapel African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church in Terre Haute provided an ideal forum. Revels played an essential part in establishing a private school at First and Sheets (now Crawford) streets, more than a decade before the first Indiana public school existed.
The subscription school at Allen Chapel gained renown, particularly in North Carolina. Several African-American families, including skylight maker John Hinton, located here to secure tutoring for their children. Hinton's son James enrolled in 1848, eventually becoming Indiana's first black state representative. The school's existence may have persuaded P.B.S. Pinchback, the first black governor in the U.S., to make Terre Haute his home during the 1850s.
Revels' residency likely was brief. He also founded churches in Illinois, Ohio, Kentucky, Missouri and Kansas. After the Civil War, Hiram settled in Natchez, Miss., reluctantly allowing himself to be elected city alderman and then state senator. His oratory gained wide-spread notice. A stirring invocation on Jan. 20, 1870, before the Mississippi General Assembly prompted his selection as interim U.S. senator, ironically filling the seat formerly occupied by Jefferson Davis, president of the Confederacy.
Polite and unassuming, Revels was a national sensation and honored guest at lavish Washington receptions. When he presented his credentials on Feb. 23, Senate galleries were packed. To Republicans, he was living proof the war had advanced civil rights. The portly Revels was seated by a convincing 48-8 vote. On Feb. 25 at 4:40 p.m., he officially became the first black man to serve in either the Senate or the House of Representatives. Sen. Revels' dignified congressional service ended in March 1871. Returning to Mississippi, he co-founded "Revels University" for African-American students, became its first president and then crusaded to change the school name to "Alcorn University" to honor the white governor who supported his efforts. He also taught at Shaw University and was elected Mississippi secretary of state.
Before his death on Jan. 16, 1901, Revels held ministerial posts in Holly Springs, Miss., and Richmond, Ind. Most biographers report his birthdate as Sept. 27, 1827; some historians believe he was several years older.