Hiram Rhodes Revels (sometimes spelled "Rhoades")has the distinction of being the first black person to serve as a United States Senator.
He was born with mixed African and Croatan Indian heritage in a slave state but to free parents. The details are not precisely known but it's generally thought to have been 27 September 1827 in or near Fayetteville, North Carolina (some believe he was older, giving an 1822 date). As a youth, he was apprenticed as a barber to his brother in Lincolnton, North Carolina. His brother died in 1841 and Revels ran the barber shop for two more years.
Next, he sought out an education, first attending a Quaker school in Liberty, Indiana. He also attended school in Ohio and in 1855 went to Knox Academy, the preparatory school of Knox College, in Galesburg, Illinois. Having been ordained a minister in the African Methodist Episcopal Church in Baltimore, Maryland, he spent time traveling throughout the Midwest and South ministering to black congregations (Illinois, Indiana, Kansas, Kentucky, Maryland, and Tennessee). He finally chose to stay in Baltimore as a pastor and a principal at a black school.
He took part in the Civil War, first by helping to organize two black regiments from Maryland and second by serving in Vicksburg, Mississippi (where he also helped organize some black churches) as a chaplain to another. In 1863, while he was in St. Louis helping to set up a school, he was responsible for helping recruit blacks for a Missouri regiment.
After the war, he preached in southern churches, including Louisville and New Orleans, before settling in Natchez, Mississippi in 1866. Two years later he was elected alderman and the year after, state senator.
Then in 1870, he was chosen by legislative vote (85-15) to fill the United States Senate seat left vacant by none other than Jefferson Davis (his term had not expired), president of the Confederacy. Given the times and the part of the country he was from, it is no surprise that he encountered resistance (I'm sure being the "first" also factored into it). One argument was that he did not fit the citizenship requirement of nine years stipulated by the Constitution ( Article I section 3), the reason being he hadn't become one until the passage of the 14th amendment (1868). Another argument was that any election would be null and void since Mississippi had no civil government under military rule. Similar to that, another was that his "credentials were invalid because they had been signed by an unelected military governor" (www.usbol.com).
There was much debate but the arguments eventually were rejected and he became the Republican senator from Mississippi on 25 February 1870 (the vote was 48-8). He served out the term (through March 1871) but was not reelected. During his term he served as a member on the Committee on Education and Labor on the District of Columbia and voted against an amendment meant to continue segregation in Washington, D.C. public schools. He fought to reinstate blacks who had been denied seats in the Georgia General Assembly and for ex-Confederates who swore loyalty to the United States to be given amnesty and restored citizenship. He also worked to help black mechanics who had been denied the chance to work at the Washington Naval Yard because of the color of their skin.
After his time in the Senate, Revels returned to Mississippi and became president of Alcorn State College (the first black land grant college in that state). In 1873, he briefly served as Mississippi's ad interim Secretary of State. The following year, he left Alcorn because of conflict with Republican Governor Adelbert Ames (he returned two years later and retired from the job in 1882). Because of his dislike for the politics of Ames and what he saw as corruption of some in the Republican party, he actively campaigned for Democrats in the 1875 election.
Meanwhile, Revels has become pastor at a church in Holly Springs, Mississippi. Because of his involvement during the election, he was questioned by the Senate's Select Committee to Inquire into Alleged Frauds in Recent Elections in Mississippi. In an attempt to help Democrats, he lied about having had any knowledge of violence that took place during that time. This angered many people, including blacks, and lost him his pastorate.
For the duration of his life, Revels returned to religion and education. He was editor of the Southwestern Christian Advocate, was able to return to his former church, taught theology at Shaw University (now called Rust College), and worked as an African Methodist Episcopalian district superintendent.
He died on 16 January 1901, while he was attending a church conference in Aberdeen, Mississippi.
(Sources: www.usbol.com/ctjournal/HRevelsbio.html, http://statelibrary.dcr.state.nc.us/nc/bio/afro/revels.htm, www.house.gov/ebjohnson/cbchistoryrevels.htm, www.knox.edu)