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Harrisburg's Thomas Morris Chester - the country's first African-American war correspondent

February is Black History Month. In honor of the valuable contributions African-Americans make to this country and area, stories on local African-Americans will be highlighted.

Thomas Morris Chester, the son of escaped slaves from Baltimore, was born on May 11, 1834 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Born of well-to-do, progressive parents, Chester studied at Allegheny College outside Pittsburgh, where he became a proponent of African colonization. After graduating, he took his passion for the proposal of African colonization further by moving to Liberia in 1853. While in Liberia, Chester wrote for the Star of Liberia in Monrovia (Liberia’s capitol).

Chester traveled back and forth from Liberia to the United States, but moved back as the Civil War heated up. He joined the Union cause by helping to form the 54th and 55th Massachusetts regiments and in 1863 led two regiments of the United States Colored Troops into battle at Gettysburg. In 1864, the Philadelphia Press hired him as a journalist, covering the Petersburg-Richmond front. With his hiring, Chester became the first African-American war correspondent for a major daily newspaper.

After the Civil War, Chester went on to study law in England and became England’s first black barrister (lawyer). He returned to the United States in the early 1870s, where he settled in Louisiana for a time. In 1873, Chester became the brigadier general of the militia, and then in 1875 he became the superintendent of schools. In 1788, after the Democrats returned to power, he moved back to Harrisburg, finding work with the federal government. He did serve as President of the Wilmington, Wrightsville and Onslow Railroad in North Carolina as well, but it failed. In 1888, Chester and his wife Florence returned to New Orleans, but illness caused Chester to move back to his childhood home in Harrisburg, where he passed away in his mother’s home in 1893. He is buried in Penbrook’s Lincoln Cemetery in Harrisburg.

For more information on Thomas Morris Chester, read his story in Thomas Morris Chester, Black Civil War Correspondent by R.J.M. Blackett.

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