February 2, 2011

Thomas Morris Chester (Cheyney University of Pennsylvania)

In News History: The Lone Black Reporter of the Civil War

This year, cities and organizations around the country will commemorate the 150th anniversary of the start of the Civil War, which lasted from 1861 to 1865.

In the history of journalism, the Civil War marked the first time that large numbers of reporters, artists and photographers followed troops into battle for a firsthand look.

Philadelphia Press reporter Thomas Morris Chester was the only African American covering the Civil War for a major daily. He was in Richmond, Va., in 1865 when Union troops seized the Confederate capital.

Chester, the son of an oysterman and an escaped slave, rode into Richmond with black Union troops who were fighting to win not only freedom for their race but also recognition as patriots by their country.

Chester wrote that the sight of slaves greeting Union soldiers was "not only grand, but sublime."

Early on, Chester broke with his parents' abolitionist philosophy to support the African colonization movement, championing Liberian settlement. He immigrated to Liberia in 1853 at the age of 19, where he became editor of the Star of Liberia newspaper in Monrovia. He returned to the United States after a year but travelled frequently to Liberia over the next 13 years. He joined the Philadelphia Press in 1864, becoming the paper's first black reporter.

After the war, Chester traveled throughout Europe advocating Liberia, studied law in England and later tried Louisiana politics.

In 1892, embittered by Jim Crow laws and ill, he returned to his hometown of Harrisburg, Pa., where he died of a heart attack. He was buried in a segregated Harrisburg cemetery.

Chester and other journalists who covered conflict are featured in a section on war reporting in the Newseum's News Corporation News History Gallery.

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