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    A call to Obama via a vintage phone

    Last year, I was in my basement tending clothes in the washer on the day after President Obama’s State of the Union Message. It was the one where South Carolina Republican Rep. Joe Wilson shouted out “You lie”  like a 4-year-old. 

    Fortunately, Obama’s speech last night went without such a rancorous outburst. But Wilson’s remark was on everyone’s mind. Hearing such disrespect from a Southerner directed to a black man that night wasn’t surprising to me as a Southerner. People like Wilson were born (in 1947 in Charleston) in a culture that taught them not to respect black people. 

    So, the disdain he had for a black president outweighed any respect he had for the office itself. Even Bill Clinton in the darkest hours of his sexual affair with Monica Lewinsky never drew such vitriol at his Union speeches. 


    Listening to Obama’s speech last night reminded me of that morning and where my thoughts were tuned at the time. There in my basement was a vintage black telephone that I had bought at auction some months before. I liked the phone for the curved sweep of its body (even though the dialer was missing). I was back in my basement today and saw that phone again. 

    These old phones come up at auction pretty often. A month ago, about a dozen of them – someone’s collection, probably – were laid out on a table at one of my favorite auction houses. All shapes, all kinds, all sizes. These phones were not lightweight back them, not like the slim hand-helds we have in our homes today or the cell phones some of us have adopted to replace them. 

    If this country’s first black senator – Hiram Rhodes Revels, who took office during Reconstruction – could call Obama on one of those vintage phones, what would he say, I wondered. I’m imagining that wherever his spirit lives, it has access to an old black phone. 

    Revels was the first African American in Congress, serving from Feb. 25, 1870, to March 3, 1871. And you know it had to be hard for him. He was elected right after slavery when the mood of the country – especially in the South – was antagonistic towards African Americans. Like Obama, Revels appeared to be the right person at the right time: His politics were moderate, his attitude conciliatory and his oratorical skills, persuasive. As a result, according to some accounts, Revels won over many who met him.   

    There are others, however, who believe that he may have been too accommodating. 

    He was an educated freedman ordained as a minister, and served as a chaplain for a Union regiment of free blacks during the Civil War. In 1866, he was elected an alderman in Natchez, MS, where he had settled in 1866, and later a state senator. The Republicans in the Mississippi legislature, which elected that state’s U.S. senators at that time, chose him to represent the state. 

    Getting admitted to the U.S. Senate was not so easy for the 42-year-old Revels. His credentials were rejected by Senate Democrats, with the opposition led by politicians from Delaware, Maryland and Kentucky. Opponents said that among other things, he did not qualify because he had not been a citizen the required nine years. They argued that he had only become a citizen with the 1868 passing of the 14th amendment, and pointed to the Dred Scott decision, which in 1857 declared that Africans and their descendants were not U.S. citizens. 

    The Senate spent three days arguing the constitutional issues, fuming and insulting, as Revels sat on a sofa on the Senate floor watching them. He was finally admitted with the support of 48 Republicans, as noted in articles in several newspapers denouncing and praising the decision. 

    As a senator, Revels called for – and helped get – reinstatement of black congressmen from Georgia, argued for amnesty for ex-Confederates (after they professed loyalty to the country), recommended a black candidate to West Point (who was rejected), and got black mechanics from Baltimore employed at the Washington Naval Yard. He also spoke out against racial segregation. 

    I’m sure Revel’s life inside the Senate was harsh. I’m sure the ridicule did not cease, especially from the Southern Democrats. Even though the Republicans had his back, I’m sure they didn’t cover all of it. 

    What advice would Revels give Obama based on his own experiences in 1870? 

    Through static on that old black phone, calling from who knows where, I believe he would say: “Hang in there, man. What you’re experiencing is nothing compared to what I had to go through. While some still question your credentials, there are millions of others who accept you in the office of president. Continue to hold on to your faith. It could be worse. Trust me, I know.” 

    Hiram Revels being sworn in on Feb. 25, 1870.

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