Excerpts from History.net

 

Our brotherly lineage is full of reasons why every member of today’s #GrandUnitedOrderofOddFellows should smile ear to ear!!! South Carolina District 13 DGM Shawn O. Cannon gave me the name and now I present to you… Past Grand Director of America and Jurisdiction…. Bro. Thomas Morris Chester.

He’s a Harrisburg,Pa native… the son of an escaped slave from Baltimore and an oyster hustler, was one of our most famous 19th century icons.

As successful restaurateurs, his parents had the means to educate their 12 children, enabling 16-year-old Thomas to enter the #AlleghenyInstitute, not far from #Pittsburgh. He spent two years at the institute, which had been founded as a school, later a college, “for the education of colored Americans.” The time Chester spent at this “fountain of learning,” as he put it, left him with an insatiable thirst for knowledge.

Life for Chester, as a free black man in mid-19th century America, was far from ideal……In Chester’s home state, free African Americans were denied the right to cast a ballot. Then the government passed the Fugitive Slave Acts. This meant his own family had no protection from an overzealous Body snatcher, who could take any black person on the charge of being a runaway, based on hate literally!!! The accused, having no right to a defense, could then be taken south and sold into lifetime of bondage. The disdain about the FSA surely radicalized Chester’s thoughts about black life in America. There was only one course of action he thought made sense…getting the hell outta there…His destination: Liberia ! In 1853, He sailed on the ship named Banshee. Upon arrival he enrolled in Alexander High School, located in #Monrovia. What he found was that the classes offered here he had already aced unfortunately, so he headed back to the states.

Throughout his life, Chester would continue to improve his education, earning a law degree in England, for example, when he was 36. For a time, however, his formal schooling in the United States was put on hold as he found himself caught up in the devisive issues that were pitting the Northern and Southern states against each other during the years leading up to the war.

 

With no opportunity for advancement, after a year or so Thomas left Liberia and returned to the United States.

Over the next decade, 1854-1864, Chester was in constant motion. Determined to graduate from high school, he attended an academy in Vermont and earned his diploma. Afterward he went back to Liberia, stayed briefly, came home and then sailed twice more to Africa. On his first return trip to Liberia he served as a teacher of newly arrived immigrants; the second time he established a newspaper in Monrovia; and on his third trip he got involved in Liberian politics, but his candidate lost.

Thomas returned to the United States in 1861, while the country was engulfed in the Civil War. Yet for African Americans, nothing seemed to have changed. President Lincoln had made it clear at the outset that his administration would not interfere with slavery; its objective was solely to preserve the Union. Convinced more than ever before that black colonization was the only solution to racial injustice in America, Chester spoke at a number of meetings to persuade free African Americans to migrate to Liberia.

Although he was a highly effective speaker and was physically impressive on the podium—a tall, muscular, “splendid looking man, with manners highly cultivated”—his audiences remained unreceptive. Most black Americans were still opposed to colonization, had no desire to migrate and firmly believed that the United States was their country too.

Once President Lincoln announced his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863, the colonization movement, never popular to begin with, lost whatever momentum it still had. The administration had reversed itself; this was going to be a war not only to preserve the Union but to liberate those in bondage.

On February 20, 1863, in a speech to a capacity audience at Cooper Institute in New York City, the hall where only three years before Lincoln had delivered a campaign address that helped win him the nomination, Chester warned his mostly black listeners that their enemies would say and do whatever necessary to bring discredit upon the proclamation. “You will hear,” he predicted, “in more frightful phrases than ever, that the Negroes are coming north to take the bread out of the white man’s mouth… and that black men will be satisfied with nothing else but white wives….We have neither preached nor practiced amalgamation,” Chester reminded his audience. Ironically, he pointed out, “Those very persons who preach so loudly against amalgamation have been practicing it from their earliest recollections”—a reference to the mixed-race children found on numerous plantations.

But this was not a time to “ridicule” and “chastise,” Chester went on, this was an occasion for “rejoicing and exultation.” With uncharacteristic optimism, he declared, “The dark days of the republic are ended, and on the indestructible foundations of virtue, justice, and liberty, the future prosperity and splendor of this nation will be erected.” To “enthusiastic applause,” Chester concluded his speech by praising “the wise and just administration of Father Abraham.”

The proclamation also included a call for the enlistment of black soldiers. Here was an opportunity for African Americans to achieve some sense of equality, even if it meant risking their lives. Along with other prominent black leaders, Chester took part in the drive to recruit men of color for the Union Army. He himself was made a captain in the Pennsylvania State Militia when his hometown, Harrisburg, was threatened by a Confederate attack. But once the emergency passed, his appointment was withdrawn. Even in matters of soldiering, it became clear that despite the expectations raised by the Emancipation Proclamation, blacks were to be kept in an inferior position. Only a minuscule number of African Americans were appointed as officers on a permanent basis. And as for those serving in the ranks, there was no question that they were considered (and in many cases treated) second-rate compared to white soldiers. Sometimes abused by their white officers, supplied with substandard weapons and equipment, denied adequate medical care, provided with insufficient rations and even paid less than white soldiers until Congress, prodded by Lincoln, rectified the matter in mid-June 1864, black soldiers often found themselves in sorry situations.

Not surprisingly, when Chester was offered the opportunity by the Philadelphia Press in August 1864 to serve as a reporter on the front lines, focusing especially on black troops, he took the assignment immediately. He was the first African American to serve as a war correspondent for a major daily newspaper, but whether he realized it or not is impossible to determine. Whether he considered the danger involved is also unknown. What was probably uppermost in his mind was the chance to tell a large white audience the truth about black men in combat. And he wasn’t about to let that opportunity slip by.

Assigned to the front lines, Chester spent most of his time with the Army of the James, which had large numbers of black troops, fighting near the cities of Petersburg and the Confederate capital, Richmond. His numerous dispatches covered in detail the clashes between both armies, the extraordinary bravery of the Union soldiers, white and black, and the names of the men killed and wounded.

As for those who had expressed concerns about the abilities of African Americans on the battlefield, Chester made it clear their reservations were not justified. In combat “the colored soldiers had done handsomely. There was neither wavering nor straggling.” They stood their ground and presented “a fearless front to the enemy.”

“It would not be extravagant to predict that they will yet accomplish more brilliant achievements,” Chester told his readers. Yet much depended upon how black soldiers were treated by their white officers. There were those in command of African-American troops who refused to treat “a negro patriot as a man.” But if shown respect and kindness, Chester emphasized, “they will follow wherever their superiors may lead.”

In another set of reports, Chester made his readers aware of the grave danger black combatants faced if they fell into the hands of the Rebels. “Between the negroes and the enemy it is a war to the death” the reporter maintained. He had spoken to numerous and reliable witnesses, and there was no question that the Confederates “slaughtered” wounded and surrendering black soldiers. In one of the charges launched against Petersburg, for example, Chester reported that a Rebel officer killed five wounded soldiers of color by placing the muzzle of his pistol to each of their heads and shooting them point-blank.

At least these incidents of “racial barbarity” would soon come to an end. On April 3, 1865, Richmond surrendered. This was the high point of Chester’s journalistic career, as he accompanied the triumphant Union Army—with a black regiment serving as one of its lead units—into the fallen capital. The reporter made his way to the Virginia State House where the Confederate Congress had met, entered a room formerly occupied by its House of Representatives, and sat at the speaker’s desk to start writing his dispatch. Chester must have relished the moment. Here was a black man seated in the legislative chamber of the Confederacy, a nation that had defended slavery and racial inequality to the last.

As Chester began writing, a paroled Confederate officer passed the doorway and noticed the reporter was seated in the speaker’s chair. “Come out of there, you black cuss,” the Rebel shouted. Chester refused to acknowledge him and kept on writing, prompting the Southerner to yell once again, “Get out of there or I’ll knock your brains out.” Still ignored, the Confederate rushed up to Chester, intending to pull him from the chair. Chester stood up and punched the officer so hard that it sent him sprawling on the floor.

Just then a Union captain appeared, and the Southerner recovered enough to ask him for his sword so that he could cut the black reporter’s heart out. “I can’t let you have my sword for any such purpose,” replied the Northern officer, but he added,“If you want to fight, I will clear a space here, and see that you have fair play.” After taking a closer look at the size of Chester, the Yankee captain turned to the Rebel and added: “Let me tell you that you will get a tremendous thrashing.” Humiliated and now frightened, the Confederate stormed off, and Chester went back to finishing his dispatch.

After the war came to an end, Chester became disenchanted with the racist policies of Lincoln’s successor, Andrew Johnson. The former reporter sailed to England, where he studied law, earned his degree and served for two years in Europe as a diplomatic representative of Liberia. When that country’s leadership, whom he supported, failed to win reelection, Chester vacated the post.

Returning to the United States, he got involved in the postwar reconstruction of Louisiana, where in his capacity as an attorney (he was the first African American to practice law in that state) Chester vigorously defended equal rights for blacks. For a brief period he also served as a brigadier general of the Louisiana State Militia. But neither his legal nor his military efforts proved fruitful. The federal government was far more interested in advancing the interests of big business, and white racists resumed control of Louisiana.

In the late 1870’s and early 1880’s Chester briefly held two minor federal positions. He ended his career as head of a railroad construction company that, lacking adequate funds and suffering from stiff competition, went out of business within a year. On September 30, 1892, at age 58, Thomas Morris Chester died, deeply disappointed that America was a country still steeped in racial injustice.

Originally published in the Civil War Times

From his funeral:

Susquehanna Lodge, No. 2073, . G. U. O. O. F., and Brotherly Love Lodge, No. 890, G. U. O. O. F. Members of these two lodges and Armsted Roman lodge, No. 3468, attended, clad in suitable regalia. The pall – bearers were Messrs. William White, Nicholas Butler, Thos. Miller, John Gaitor. Samuel Hall and Alfred Garner, all members, of Past Grand Master’s Council No.7.  On top of what he did for his people our brother was heavily involved in the working of the order. He is best known and came across our desk as a publisher of the manual for the Past Grand Master’s Council and the Patriarchy…

 

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