Civil Rights | Pennsylvania Civil War 150
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Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Pennsylvania Civil War 150

Then & Now

Civil Rights


Pennsylvania Quakers in 1688 were among the first to register a formal protest against slavery and the Pennsylvania Abolition Society, founded in Philadelphia in 1775 continued to advocate against slavery. Despite the fact that Pennsylvania passed legislation against slavery in 1780 with “An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery,” slavery remained in practice in the state well into the 19th century. A growing number of free blacks actively sought equal rights and an end to slavery long before the Civil War began. Their struggle was led by African American leaders, often working with white reformers. As early as the 18th century, Richard Allen of Philadelphia helped found the Free African Society as well as the Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, the first independent black denomination.


The 2008 election of Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, has been hailed as a triumph of the civil rights movement. Record numbers of African Americans registered and voted in that election and for many Americans, casting a ballot in the 2008 presidential election took on new historical significance. Veterans of the Civil Rights Movement had not anticipated that the election of a black president would be achieved in their lifetime. While the Civil War ended slavery in the United States, it was neither the beginning nor the end of a much longer and bitterly contested struggle over establishing equal rights for African Americans—a struggle that has been extended to include others excluded from full citizenship and participation in American democracy that continues today.


During the first half of the 19th century, African Americans in Pennsylvania were victims of mob actions and kidnappings and were restricted in their access to occupations and education. Riots in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Columbia and other communities document the escalating prejudice and violence against black individuals and communities. In 1838 the Pennsylvania legislature rescinded voting rights for African Americans and the same year, the Pennsylvania Hall built by the Pennsylvania Abolition Society was burned down by arson. African Americans participated in a range of strategies to counteract these assaults on their civil rights. They used the legal system and court cases as one strategy to defend their rights. Organizations and networks bolstered by community groups like Philadelphia’s Vigilance Committee or Pittsburgh’s Philanthropic Committee sought to protect community members and became a vehicle for shielding freedom seekers escaping slavery. In Philadelphia, James Forten and his family, including his wife, daughters and son-in-law Robert Purvis, were active in antislavery efforts as well as in attempts to expand the rights of both African Americans and women. Martin Delany of Pittsburgh was an influential spokesperson, writer and advocate of equal rights for African Americans and was an early proponent of black nationalism in addition to his career as a doctor, educator, newspaper editor, lecturer and officer in the Civil War.


During the Civil War, African Americans volunteered and served in the United States Colored Troops to fight for both union and freedom. The 1865 ratification of the 13th Amendment guaranteed the abolition of slavery but left unresolved the question of whether freed people would possess the full rights of citizenship. Pennsylvania Congressmen Thaddeus Stevens and William Kelley were two of the most forceful advocates of additional civil rights legislation to protect the fruits of the Union victory and insure justice for the African Americans who had contributed so mightily to the Union cause. The Freedmen’s Bureau Act and the Civil Rights Act, both passed in 1866 defined all native-born Americans as citizens of the U.S. with equal entitlement to the rights of citizens but did not explicitly include voting rights. Ratified in 1868 and 1870, the 14th and 15th Amendments further specified that, as citizens, African Americans were entitled to due process and equal protection of the law and could not be disqualified from voting on the basis of race. Together, these amendments laid the foundation for a more democratic nation, but the end of Reconstruction ushered in new forms of prejudice and continued barriers to civil rights.


Despite attaining basic Constitutional rights, African Americans continued to face widespread discrimination and violence. In both North and South, the Ku Klux Klan and other paramilitary organizations used terroristic violence to kill and intimidate African Americans and their political allies while mobs and gangs attacked African Americans who tried to vote in elections. Philadelphia civil rights leader Octavius Catto was murdered in 1871 on Election Day at the age of 31. In 1896, the U.S. Supreme Court decision Plessy v. Ferguson provided a legal basis for institutionalized racial segregation during the “Jim Crow” era in Pennsylvania as well as the South. KKK membership and lynchings of African Americans increased in all parts of the country in the early 20th century, including Pennsylvania. In Coatesville, the brutal lynching of Zachariah Walker in 1918 led to passage of Pennsylvania’s anti-lynching law in 1923. The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) founded in New York in 1909, led legal battles and protests against discrimination and actively fought for stronger national legislation to outlaw lynching.


An end to the “separate but equal” Jim Crow era policies of education, public accommodations, and employment became the rallying cry for a new generation of Civil Rights activists beginning with Brown v. Board of Education in 1954. In 1955, Pennsylvania became one of the first states to enact a Fair Employment Practices Act. By the 1960s non-violent sit-ins and demonstrations that began in the South spread to northern states like Pennsylvania where continued racial barriers to jobs, housing and education created worsening conditions and frustration in black communities. Violence erupted in the Columbia Avenue Riot in Philadelphia in 1964, followed by the 1968 riots in Philadelphia, Pittsburgh and Harrisburg in response to Martin Luther King’s assassination. In 1969, a black woman from North Carolina visiting relatives in York, Pennsylvania was shot by a white mob. In the ensuing decades, the election of Philadelphia’s first black mayor, Wilson Goode, and the work of Pennsylvania Civil Rights leaders like Rev. Leroy Patrick, Rep. LeRoy Irvis and C. Delores Tucker helped break down barriers in government, public accommodations and schools.

From the first petition signed by Quakers in 1688, to the act of voting in 2008, Americans have been engaged in a long journey to secure the promise of equal rights for all.


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