“Time Works Wonders”

April 9, 1870

Thomas Nast

“Time Works Wonders”

Analogies, Shakespeare; Black Americans; Congress; Reconstruction;

Davis, Jefferson; Schurz, Carl; Sumner, Charles; Revels, Hiram;

American South;

Iago. (Jeff Davis.) "For that I do suspect the lusty Moor hath leap'd into my seat: the thought whereof doth like a poisonous mineral gnaw my inwards."--Othello.

During Reconstruction, black men were elected to political office for the first time in American history. They served at the local, state, and national level, although at a ratio far below that of the percentage of blacks in those constituencies.  

In 1870, Hiram Revels of Mississippi, a Republican, became the first black person elected to the U.S. Senate. Born a free black in North Carolina, Revels was educated at Knox College (Illinois) and ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church.  He worked as a pastor in various Northern and border states, and as a principal of a school for black children in Baltimore, Maryland.  During the Civil War, once Congress authorized the use of blacks in the Union military, Revels organized two black volunteer regiments in Maryland and served as a chaplain to another black regiment in Mississippi.    

At the end of the war, Revels ministered to a black congregation in Natchez, Mississippi, and entered politics during Reconstruction.  When Mississippi rejoined the Union in February 1870, the Republican-controlled state legislature elected Revels to complete the term of Jefferson Davis, who had left the Senate in 1861 upon Mississippi's secession and became president of the Confederacy.  

It is that ironic twist of fate, which saw a black man filling the Senate seat previously held by a slave owner who became Confederate president, which is the subject of Nast's cartoon.  Here, Revels is welcomed to the Senate chamber by a group of his fellow-Republican senators (left to right):  Henry Wilson of Massachusetts, Oliver Morton of Indiana, Carl Schurz of Missouri, and Charles Sumner of Massachusetts. Nast often tapped the plays of Shakespeare, which were well known to nineteenth-century Americans, as sources of inspiration and symbolism. In this cartoon, the artist portrays Davis as the evil Iago, who schemed against the innocent Othello, the Moor (African).

At the term's conclusion on March 3, 1871, Revels left the Senate to become the first president of Alcorn University (Mississippi), the first land-grant college for black students.  In 1874, he was dismissed by the college board.  He soon joined the Democratic party and helped to oust the Republicans from power in the state.  In gratitude, his new political allies in the Democratic party reappointed him in 1876 as president of Alcorn, where he served until his retirement.  

In addition to Revels, fifteen other black men served in Congress during the Reconstruction era, including Blanche Bruce, a former slave who was also elected to the Senate as a Republican from Mississippi (serving 1875-1881).  After Revels and Bruce left office, however, it would be nearly 100 years until the next black, Republican Edward Brooke of Massachusetts, was elected to the U.S. Senate (serving 1967-1979). The first black woman and black Democrat elected to the U.S. Senate was Carol Moseley-Braun (serving 1993-1999).

Robert C. Kennedy

“Time Works Wonders”
June 17, 2024

Home | About | Contact || Access | Features 

Website design © 2001-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
All Content © 1998-2008 HarpWeek, LLC
Please submit questions to