The life and legacy of Thomas Morris Chester is yet another example of Black scribes chronicling our history, risking their lives to make sure our story is told, and told with brilliance and insight. During the Civil War when for many years not seeing a Black in uniform on the battlefield, to say of any with a pen or pencil documenting the conflict, Chester was there, braving the flying bullets and probably a barrage of racist insults. In a word, he was a fearless reporter whose daring feats have flown under history’s radar.
Chester was born on May 11, 1834, in Harrisburg, Pa. His pedigree of bravery may have been passed down to him through his courageous mother, Jane, who at 19 escaped from bondage and later as a fugitive slave married George Chester, who made a living selling oysters. And with the couple having 12 children, he had to sell a lot of oysters, most of which were earmarked for sales at their restaurant.
They got a steady flow of customers and diners who knew that a meal there would be wholesome and scrumptious, plus they were sure to find a retinue of kindred spirits looking forward to the latest abolitionist news and to read The Liberator, published by William Lloyd Garrison. With enterprising and successful parents, Chester had the means to attend the best educational institutions, including the Allegheny Institute, not too far from Pittsburgh. The Institute and Chester were perfectly matched, and the learning atmosphere there enhanced his desire to acquire all the knowledge and information possible.
Some of the inspiration obtained at Allegheny was instrumental in his quest to get a law degree, which he received in England at the age of 36. But educational pursuits had to be set aside when the Civil War erupted. His educational achievements did not help him over the social and political barriers erected to halt even the most ambitious of strivers. One troubling obstacle for Black Americans was the Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850, though it only indirectly hampered Chester since he was a free man. Even so, he was a Black man and to be in the wrong place at the wrong time made you a target of predatory bounty hunters.
An intrepid traveler, Chester witnessed a number of incidents in which unsuspecting Blacks were snatched from the streets and shipped to the South where slaveholders were eager to own you, lock, stock and barrel.
It wasn’t unusual to see families in flight when news circulated that slave catchers were on the prowl. Many of them packed their belongings and sought refuge in Canada. Soon the war was pervasive but Chester didn’t immediately have to worry since the nation insisted this was a “white man’s war.” In 1853, at the age of 19, Chester set sail for Africa and soon upon arrival in Monrovia, he enrolled in high school, but this venture only lasted a year before he was wandering again.
For the next 10 years he roamed far and wide upon returning to the states, including a stay in Vermont where he earned a high school diploma, but then it was off to Liberia again. The back and forth from the states to Liberia only gained significance after he started his newspaper and ran unsuccessfully for political office. By the time he settled back in the states, the Civil War was raging. Chester was not at all excited about Lincoln’s presidency; his promises rang hollow about emancipating slaves. Chester began to think again about Liberia and the American colonization movement, which to him was the only solution to the abject conditions Black Americans had to endure.
He set aside his plan to join the movement after Lincoln signed the Emancipation Proclamation bill in 1863. But this was only a partial degree of freedom to Chester’s way of thinking and he wrote a warning to Black Americans. “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”—here he was referring to numerous children of mixed race across the South.
The next step by the president was conscription acts that allowed Black soldiers to join the Union forces in separate units, and almost exclusively without officer or leadership capacity. To renew his journalist urges, he took an offer from the Philadelphia Press to cover the war. Never mind that he did this without any regard for the danger he faced.
The surrender of the rebels in Richmond was a high point for Chester’s journalistic career, particularly in the chamber of the Confederacy behind the commander’s desk where he completed his dispatches. When he was seen at the Speaker’s desk, he was confronted by a Confederate soldier who demanded he relinquish the chair. When the soldier approached with the purpose of unseating Chester, that prompted Chester to deliver a blow that sent the soldier sprawling across the floor. The soldier, totally defeated, quietly sulked from the room and Chester resumed his deadline.
At the war’s conclusion, Chester was not satisfied with the way things were going for Black Americans, especially with Lincoln dead and his successor an outright racist. He embarked for Liberia once more, this time for two years as a diplomatic representative of Liberia. But this, too, was short-lived and he returned to the states.
Among a host of civic and military duties, he served as a leader in the Louisiana State Militia, and in the late 1870s and 1880s, he held minor positions in the government. He ended his productive life at the helm of a railroad construction company. He died on Sept. 30, 1892, at only 58.
In his hometown, he is remembered most notably by a school that bears his name.