Hiram Rhodes Revels (1827-1901) of Mississippi was the first African American to serve in the United States Senate when he filled the unexpired term of Jefferson Davis. Revels served just over a year from February 25, 1870, to March 13, 1871. During an 1871 Senate debate over school segregation in the District of Columbia (over which Congress had jurisdiction) Revels, in a rare speech before his Senate colleagues, urged desegregation of the District’s schools and in the process described the varied prejudices that African Americans faced from their fellow citizens. Revels and fellow supporters lost the debate and the District’s schools remained segregated until the U.S. Supreme Court’s Brown v. Board of Education Decision in 1954. Revels’s speech on the Senate floor appears below.
MR. PRESIDENT, I rise to express a few thoughts on this subject. It is not often that I ask the attention of the Senate on any subject, but this is one on which I feel it is my duty to make a few brief remarks.
In regard to the wishes of the colored people of this city, I will simply say that the trustees of colored schools and some of the most intelligent colored men of this place have said to me that they would have before asked for a bill abolishing the separate colored schools and putting all children on an equality in the common schools if they had thought they could obtain it. They feared they could not; and this is the only reason why they did not ask for it before.
I find that the prejudice in this country to color is very great, and I sometimes fear that it is on the increase. For example, let me remark that it matters not how colored people act, it matters not how they behave themselves, how well they deport themselves, how intelligent they may be, how refined they may be—for there are some colored persons who are persons of refinement; this must be admitted—the prejudice against them is equally as great as it is against the most low and degraded man you can find in the streets of this city or in any other place.