On Sept. 21, 2002, descendants of Thomas Morris Chester gathered at his grave in Lincoln Cemetery on flat, level ground in Penbrook, Penn. to unveil a newly refurbished gravestone with a corrected year of his birth. The ceremony was part of the United States Colored Troops Institute Regional Conference, held that weekend, at the National Civil War Museum. The date of his birth on the worn and sunken tombstone was corrected to ensure historical accuracy. Since the month of February is a month in which African Americans and others focus on historical events and achievements, the life of Chester, an American war correspondent, reflects a period when the status of African Americans in the nation was at the crossroads.

Chester was born in 1834 to African American restaurateurs George and Jane Chester in a small apartment above the family business in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania’s state capital at Third and Market Streets. He was the son of a slave woman, Jane, who escaped from Baltimore in 1825 and, as such, her son was born free. She became a successful caterer. His father’s restaurant was a stop on the Underground Railroad. As an oysterman and restaurant owner, Chester’s father, George, was part of the inner circle of political and social functions of Harrisburg. Thomas was 16 years of age when he left home to study at Allegheny Institute near Pittsburgh. While studying there he became interested in colonization and sailing to Liberia. He left the United States for Monrovia, Liberia in 1854, where he continued his education at Alexander High School. He distinguished himself early by becoming one of the city’s first African Americans to go to college. Thomas Morris Chester attended all-black Avery College in Pittsburgh, an institution that served as a focal point for a fledgling back-to-Africa movement that was growing prior to the Civil War. He completed his college education at the prestigious Thetford Academy in Vermont where he studied Greek and Latin. His performance as a member of the debating society at Thetford Academy was excellent and he graduated with second honors in his class. A classmate described Chester “as smart a fellow as I ever saw,” according to an article by David Lander (American Legacy, 2006). He returned to Liberia and began a lifelong career of educating African Americans. In addition, he started a newspaper, The Star of Liberia. Upon the death of his father, he returned to the United States just as the Civil War began. He spent two years lecturing across the North about the abolition of slavery and the importance of black pride and self-respect. He was an early recruiter for the U. S. Colored Troops, and was largely responsible for the formation of the Massachusetts 54th and 55th Regiments, which were immortalized in the Oscar-Winning film, “Glory.”

According to his official biography, Thomas Morris Chester initially refused to join the military because African Americans were not permitted to rise above the rank of Sergeant. His leadership skills were thought to be vitally important to the North’s war effort. According to Lander, Chester was the only black correspondent to work for a major white newspaper during the Civil War. His life, however, comprised much more than writing for the Philadelphia Press. He became a reporter, lawyer, and lecturer and throughout his career he battled bigotry with “an arsenal of eloquence.” After the American Emancipation Proclamation, Thomas M. Chester assisted in recruiting black troops in his home state of Pennsylvania and traveled abroad giving pro-union speeches and raising money for the Freedmen's Bureau. “It was during that time that he studied law and was admitted to the bar.” Chester aided Liberia and worked as a roving ambassador for that nation in Europe. He made numerous lecture tours that took him from his home state, Pennsylvania, to various cities in England and the Continent, even Russia, wrote Lander, “where he was the dinner guest of Czar Alexander II.” Continuing, he read law at the venerable Middle Temple, one of London’s four Inns of Court where barristers in England learn their profession, and he was the first African American called to that nation’s bar as well as being one of the first blacks admitted to the Louisiana bar. He was also admitted to the Pennsylvania and District of Columbia bars to practice law. In later years after his return to America, he relocated to Louisiana where he began practicing law. He was praised by others for his courtroom skills, and served as a general in the Louisiana state militia and in various public service positions on both the state and federal levels.

He launched his legal career with “characteristic bravado,” says Lander. He defended a shoemaker accused of murder. His “sharp cross-examination managed to so shake the evidence as to save his client from the gallows,” one report stated. In another trial held in New Orleans, Chester represented an African American named Charles Lewis, who had been refused service at a soda fountain. As Lander writes, Chester reminded the court: “It is fatal to liberty when the color of a man’s skin, deepened by the sun of heaven, ostracizes him from the public places, outlaws him in public estimation.” Lewis won his suit, which preceded the 1960 sit-ins that would result in more enduring benefits by nearly a century.

Chester’s life outside the courtroom was substantially more tumultuous. After finishing a lecture tour in Louisiana in 1871, he moved to the state which was in political turmoil. In an atmosphere similar, in many ways to the present, Democrats battled Republicans, whites clashed with blacks, and African Americans disagreed politically. Violence was widespread, according to Lander’s account, and an estimated 5,000 members of the Republican Party — the party of Lincoln — were killed in just a few years following the Civil War. “Most of the dead were black, and on New Year’s Day 1872, Chester came close to joining them. He was shot and wounded during an altercation involving an African American political boss, Pinckney B. S. Pinchback who was charged with the crime along with three others. After bail was posted, the matter simply evaporated.” The following year, Chester escaped injury during a confrontation that erupted with a vigilante group called the White League. He was visiting his hometown of Harrisburg at the time. In 1875, Chester was appointed as district superintendent of education in Louisiana. He also held the position of Brigadier General of the Louisiana State Militia. A supporter of the Kansas Exodus movement of 1879, he was president of a short-lived railroad organized by African American investors. He received minor federal appointments through 1884 and continued to practice law.

He moved to New Orleans, Louisiana and lived with the woman he had married in the late 1870s, a school teacher named Florence Johnson. He made a final visit to Harrisburg, the city of his birth, in April 1892, suffering from a “complication of diseases.” He died in his hometown a few months later at the age of 58. An outstanding war correspondent, he contributed to the preservation of African American Military and Civil Rights history. He began filing stories in August 1864 and the following April, as a war correspondent, he entered Richmond with black Union troops, and wrote many of his stories from the Confederate House of Representatives. From there, he filed the only eyewitness account of activities of black soldiers around Richmond and Petersburg. Writing about Thomas Morris Chester, Civil War Correspondent, Blackett noted that “he commended colored soldiers, and he made a point of praising white officers who showed no bias toward colored troops.” With his death, the “voice from Harrisburg” was silenced forever. But his accomplishments, his legal defense of the poor and wrongly accused and, indeed his courage and commitment to black liberation, will live in the chronicles of American history forever.

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