MHQ: The Quarterly Journal of Military History


Thomas Morris Chester was born in 1834 in Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, where his parents operated a restaurant that became known as a gathering place for abolitionists. (His mother was born into slavery but had escaped at age 19.) They were successful enough that they could enroll Chester, at age 16, in the Allegheny Institute, a new school near Pittsburgh “for the education of colored Americans in the various branches of Science, Literature, and Ancient and Modern Languages.”

The enactment of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850 terrified Chester, who feared that his mother could be kidnapped and hauled back to the South. He felt certain the United States would never allow Blacks—who still did not even have the right to vote in Pennsylvania—to live as equals among Whites. Refusing to submit to such “insolent indignities,” at age 19 he sailed to Liberia, the West African republic founded in the early 1820s to “repatriate” freed enslaved people, with the hope of finishing high school there. But he was so disappointed in the quality of education in Liberia that, after a year or so, he returned to the United States and earned his high school diploma at an academy in Vermont.

On April 3, 1865, Chester accompanied the triumphant Union army into Richmond.

Chester made several return trips to Liberia—on one of them he established a newspaper in Monrovia, the capital. But the outbreak of the Civil War in the United States changed everything for him. Although Chester regularly took to the podium to exhort African Americans to emigrate to Liberia, his audiences remained cool to the idea, and public support for the colonization movement waned after President Abraham Lincoln made his Emancipation Proclamation on January 1, 1863. Weeks later, in an impassioned speech to a capacity audience at Cooper Union in New York City, Chester proclaimed an end to “the dark days of the republic,” saying that it was a time for “rejoicing and exultation,” and

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