Zion Chapel honors Hiram Rhodes Revels at unveiling ceremony
Published 10:00 am Wednesday, October 4, 2023
NATCHEZ — Natchezians honored a former pastor, U.S. Senator and college president on Saturday at a ceremony that unveiled a bust of the late Hiram Revels at the church he pastored here, Zion Chapel African Methodist Episcopal.
Revels became pastor of Zion Chapel in 1866 and later became a Natchez alderman and Mississippi state senator.
Originally from North Carolina, Revels was later appointed by the Mississippi legislature to represent the state in the U.S. Senate. On Feb. 25, 1871, Revels of Mississippi was the first Black senator to ever be seated in that branch of government.
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His term in the Senate lasted for one year, when he returned to Mississippi to become president of what is now Alcorn State University.
Revels will be honored again when Hiram Revels Plaza, a project of the City of Natchez, Zion Chapel Church and the Downtown Natchez Alliance is completed.
Revels Plaza will turn “the triangle” at St. Catherine Street, Jefferson and Martin Luther King into a green space. A statue of Revels will stand in the V of that triangle.
Norma West, a Zion Chapel trustee and member of the Downtown Natchez Alliance, said, “What a wonderful day it is in the neighborhood,” in welcoming visitors to the church and the ceremony on Saturday.
Next, Natchez Mayor Dan Gibson described Revels as a chaplain, patriot and man of peace.
“What he stood for is what we today as American should stand for,” Gibson said.
The Rev. Dr. C. Edwards Rhodes II, who is director of the Hiram Rhodes Revels Institute for Ethical Leadership at Alcorn State University and pastor of the Mount Helm Baptist Church in Jackson, discussed Revels’ love for Alcorn and education.
“We could not sing the praises of Alcorn today without Hiram Rhodes Revels,” Rhodes said. “He felt a call to return home to help establish a land grant institution for formerly enslaved Africans.”
Rhodes said although Revels had many titles during this time, at the end of the day, he was a preacher.
“He served in the pulpit, but in the broader sense, the community…Alcorn is a public university, don’t get me wrong, but we were presided over and led by a preacher,” Rhodes said.
He said Revels was a bit subversive in his academic and presidential tenure.
“We were founded to be a trade school, but he and his peers established a liberal arts curriculum. They taught things like Greek and Latin. He himself taught theology and philosophy,” he said. “Think of the audacity of that, teaching Black folks — negroes at the time — to think critically and not just how to put stuff together.”
Revels great-grandson, Harold Woodson Jr., also spoke, representing family members at the ceremony and those who could not attend.
Sculptor Bob Willis, an artist and grief counselor, who called himself a recovering Baptist preacher. He said he was impressed with Zion Chapel and imaged all it had witnessed over the years.
“This building is a witness. This pulpit is a witness,” Willis said. “I feel honored to be here and to share some of my work…Keep in mind, this is clay. It isn’t bronze. It’s clay. We are, too. God used clay to form us. But God breathed life into us.