Nearly 140 years ago, black senator made history

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The Senate galleries were packed, filled with both black and white spectators, and a murmur filled the air as the nation's first black member of Congress, Sen. Hiram Revels, stood to deliver his first speech to the chamber.

Nearly 140 years before Sen. Barack Obama's historic quest to become the nation's first black president, Revels captivated a nation in the midst of social upheaval following the Civil War. The date was March 16, 1870, less than five years after the 13th Amendment abolished slavery.

"I rise," Revels said, "with feelings which perhaps (have) never before entered into the experience of this body."

Revels, a 42-year-old Mississippi Republican, was a product of postwar Reconstruction, when Republicans — including white northerners known as "carpetbaggers" and black southerners — dominated state governments in the South. The Mississippi Legislature, in which Revels served, voted with the backing of its black members to send him to the U.S. Senate. (Senators weren't popularly elected until 1913.)

"It would in their judgment be a weakening blow against color line prejudice," Revels wrote in his brief autobiography.

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