Modern civil rights hero helps salute 19th century political trailblazer at Constitution Center

 Congressman John Lewis and essay winner Sam Duffy unveil a new edition to the National Constitution Center's National Tree Exhibit, first African American Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

Congressman John Lewis and essay winner Sam Duffy unveil a new edition to the National Constitution Center's National Tree Exhibit, first African American Senator Hiram Rhodes Revels. (Kimberly Paynter/WHYY)

To mark Constitution Day, the 226th anniversary of the Sept. 17 signing of the United States Constitution, the National Constitution Center in Philadelphia honored the first African-American to serve in Congress. Civil rights leader and current Congressman John Lewis and civil rights leader helped commemorate Hiram Rhodes Revels.

 

Starting as a barber in North Carolina, Revels became a minister in Illinois and served as a chaplain during the Civil War. After the war, he entered politics and was elected to represent Mississippi in the U.S. Senate in 1870.

Revels was added Tuesday to one of the National Constitution Center’s permanent exhibits, the American National Tree. The center asked high school students to submit essays nominating an addition to the tree.

Sam Duffy, a high school sophomore from New York, wrote the winning essay that details how even after Revels was elected, other senators tried to block him from taking his seat in Congress.

“Democrats used the Dred Scott decision of 1857, that say no person of African descent was a citizen, to argue that Revels had been a citizen for only two years in 1868 when the 14th Amendment gave citizenship to African Americans,” said Duffy at the induction ceremony. “Since the Constitution required nine years of citizenship to become a senator, Revels was not qualified, they argued.”

Revels ultimately did take his seat, and served for two years. During that time he pushed for amnesty for his former adversaries: Southerners who fought for secession from the Union.

Lewis, who has represented Georgia’s 5th District since 1987, Georgia took part in Tuesday’s induction ceremony. The longtime civil rights activist who marched alongside Martin Luther King Jr. said that, after leaving the Senate, Hiram Rhodes Revels became the president of a black college in Mississippi.

“Revels planted some seeds, and all across America today it doesn’t matter whether you’re black or white, or Latino or Asian-American or Native American,” said Lewis. “We all can participate in a democratic process.”

Lewis is already included in the American National Tree exhibit.

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