Hiram Rhodes Revels: A time for honor

Published 2:00 pm Sunday, December 11, 2022

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If you’re in the mood to be inspired, try reading details on the life of Hiram Rhodes Revels, a famous Natchezian who made many “firsts” in American History.

Born in North Carolina in 1827, eventually making his way to Natchez, Mr. Revels was an exceptional individual. Challenged all of his life by the limitations imposed upon him, even as a free man of color, Mr. Revels rose above it all – and he earned many titles: Teacher, Principal, Pastor, Chaplain, Alderman, Senator, College President, District Superintendent… I am certain this only touches the surface. But more than the titles he earned is the difference he made.

Mr. Revels was known for educating countless African American children and adults, at a time when doing so was met with great risk and endangerment. He helped muster the first colored troops for the US Army during the Civil War, serving as chaplain at both Vicksburg and Jackson. He served as the first pastor of Zion Chapel AME Church in Natchez, one of the first African American Aldermen in Natchez, and one of the first of his race to serve in the Mississippi Legislature. He went on to become the first President of Alcorn Agricultural and Mechanical College (now Alcorn State University) – the first Historically Black Land Grant College in the United States.

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In 1870, Mr. Revels became Senator Revels, the first African American to serve in either house of the US Congress. As he was being admitted to the US Senate on February 25, Republican Senator Charles Sumner of Massachusetts celebrated the occasion with great gusto: “All men are created equal, says the great Declaration, and now a great act attests this verity. Today we make the Declaration a reality…. The Declaration was only half established by Independence. The greatest duty remained behind. In assuring the equal rights of all we complete the work.”

Revels sought to fairly serve everyone – even those who had previously opposed him. He saw himself as a “representative of the State, irrespective of color.” He even supported a controversial measure: extending universal amnesty to all former Confederates, requiring only that they swear an oath of loyalty to the United States. In the many years after his service in Washington, Senator Revels continued working for the advancement of others. He was a devoted father, a devoted husband, a devoted patriot, and a devoted Christian. With all of this said, one would think that this great man is memorialized everywhere. But surprisingly, and sadly, this is not the case. It is in fact hard to find any memorial to him anywhere outside of his gravesite. This is an oversight that must be corrected – and the time has come.

In the coming weeks, we will begin planning for the next phase of the development of Hiram Revels Plaza – to be located at the intersection of St. Catherine Street and North Martin Luther King, Jr. Street (currently known as MLK Triangle). Our goal is for this area to become greenspace and a park where a statue honoring Senator Revels can be placed. We have already completed phase one, the removal of underground storage tanks at the site of the old service station. Zion Chapel is proceeding with restoration of that historic building, and I am so very grateful to Norma West, Pastor Birdon Mitchell, the Friends of the Riverfront (FOR Natchez), Chesney Doyle and the Natchez Downtown Alliance (DNA), Mickey Howland, for all of their hard work and planning.

In addition, we are exploring ways to tie this important site into the history of Forks of the Road, just a short distance away at St. Catherine, Franklin and Liberty streets. And we are also considering a way to connect Revels Plaza to the Natchez US Colored Troops Monument we have planned for the northern end of the Natchez Bluff.

Next week, I will be in Washington, DC seeking support for these efforts. And while there, I will be planting a seed and hoping that it gains favor. There needs to be a statue of Hiram Rhodes Revels in the United States Capitol. Natchez Deserves More. And so does Senator Revels.

Dan M. Gibson is mayor of Natchez.