He made sure Black soldiers had a voice!
Today, Black reporters are quite commonplace and we not only benefit from their journalistic integrity, but they also contribute to a more balanced and accurate world view for African-Americans. We reflect on the contributions of pioneers like Alice Dunnigan and Ethel Payne, two White House correspondents who opened doors in the 1940s, as well as the current strides of journalists like Yamiche Alcindor and Nikole Hannah-Jones. Still, there are many more whose names should be spoken; those who laid the foundation for Black journalists in various arenas of media and climbed mountains to grant us the freedoms we continue to build upon should be remembered. One of those key figures is Thomas Morris Chester, the first Black war reporter.
With the invention of the telegraph in 1844, live news reporting became even easier as newspapers were able to crank out stories within a matter of hours and spread it across the country, History.com reports. This became invaluable as the Civil War began and hundreds of reporters gathered to tell Union and Confederate newspapers exactly what was happening on the ground. Of those droves of journalists, only one was a Black man, and his name was Thomas Morris Chester.
Many of the stories being told of the Civil War were coming from white men and their families, the perspectives tainted and biased. In 1864, the Philadelphia Press took a chance to hire Chester, assigning him with covering the Black troops in Virginia. The 30-year-old Harrisburg, Pennsylvania native took the job, writing under the name “Rollin.” The son of a formerly enslaved woman, Chester had a personal attachment to the outcome of the war and became the first and only African-American correspondent to report for a major newspaper.
Chester traveled with the United States Colored Troops in the Army of James from August 1864 to June of 1865. Tasked with capturing the Confederate capital of Richmond, Virginia, the Army of James was made up of two divisions of white troops from the 24th Corps and one division of Black troops from the 25th, containing some 5,000 soldiers from seven regiments. A recruiter of Black soldiers for the Union Army, Chester aligned himself with the Black troops, staying with them on the front lines as he wrote to give voice to their stories, struggles, and fight to receive equal treatment like their white peers.
“Every man looked like a soldier, while inflexible determination depicted upon every countenance,” Chester wrote of the Black troops in the Philadelphia Press.
He did his best to remain objective, straying away from quoting his Black sources but making sure he depicted the victories and the violence soldiers were experiencing on the battlefield.
“Quivering pieces of flesh indicated the locality of the frightful scene, while fragments of the hearts and intestines were hanging upon the branches of the neighboring trees,” Chester wrote in one account.
In April 1864, when Black troops seized the Confederate capital, signaling the end of the war, Chester depicted the response of Black locals in vivid detail.
“When Union infantrymen entered Richmond, the citizens stood, gaping in wonder at the splendidly equipped army marching along under the graceful folds of the old flag…The pious old negroes, male and female, indulged in such expressions: ‘You’ve come at last,’ ‘We’ve been looking for you these many days,’ ‘Jesus has opened the way’…The soldiers, Black and white, received these assurances of loyalty as evidence of the latent patriotism of an oppressed people, which a military despotism has not been able to crush,” he wrote.
His accounts were critical to framing the perspective of Black people and troops for whom the Civil War was a much more grave undertaking. He spoke of their heroism and the horrors that awaited them if captured by the opposition. White Lieutenant Robert Verplanck, a trainer for the Black troops, called Chester “our own correspondent.”
“Between the Negroes and the enemy, it is a war to the death…The colored troops have cheerfully accepted the conditions of the Confederate government, that between them no quarter is to be shown. Those here have not the least idea of living after they fall into the hands of the enemy,” Chester wrote in August of 1864.
At some point during the war, Chester even became the subject of reports from another journalist, who witnessed the exchange between him and a Confederate officer. Threatened while sitting in the Speaker’s chair at the Virginia state capitol building, Charles C. Coffin of the Boston Journal reported that a scuffle between Chester and the officer who had threatened to “knock his brains out!.”
The New York Tribune later picked up the story, writing, “Chester planted a Black fist and left a black eye and prostrate Rebel,” noting the demand of the Confederate officer for a sword to cut the “n-word’s heart out.”
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When the war was over, Chester moved to England where he earned a law degree. Eventually, he returned to the states, becoming a Reconstruction activist in Louisiana politics. He made history again as the first African-American to practice law in the state and served as an advocate for Black Civil War veterans, telling their stories and demanding recognition on their behalf for their contributions to the war.
“It is source of complaint, and very justly too, that the colored troops and their officers have not received their med of praise from the chroniclers of events in the army, for their splendid advance and gallant bearing,” wrote Chester.
Eventually, 14 of the Black soldiers were awarded medals of honor, the first to ever receive the recognition. Throughout his career, Chester would continue to craft a legacy of bravery and courage before his untimely passing from a heart attack in 1892 at the age of 58.
Today, we honor him as a journalistic pioneer and trailblazer for legions of Black political reporters who dared put themselves on the frontline to make sure our stories are told. May we speak his name always and continue to pay homage to the legacy of Mr. Thomas Morris Chester.
Meet Thomas Morris Chester, the first Black war reporter/Photo Courtesy of the Historical Society of Dauphin County/Alamy Photo