As Philadelphians explore ways to mobilize politically in the wake of the presidential election, consider the story of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League (the League), the black-led organization undaunted by intimidation and violence in its fight for African American rights.
Despite emancipation and the conspicuous bravery of nearly 180,000 African American soldiers in the Union Army, Philadelphia's black communities continued to be rankled after the Civil War by systematic segregation.
"More unmerciful in her proscription of colored men than any other city in the Union," denounced the Christian Recorder.
Founded in New York in 1864 by Fredrick Douglass and other prominent black leaders to "make legal equality a reality" for African Americans, the National Equal Rights League soon sponsored state branches stretching from North Carolina to Louisiana. The Pennsylvania chapter emerged that same year.
In Philadelphia, under the direction of athlete and activist Octavius Catto, the League "pledged to leave no means untried to regain those rights of which we, citizens of the United States and citizens of Pennsylvania, have been so cruelly and unjustifiably deprived."
The organization first set its sights on the city's streetcar segregation. Working with Thaddeus Stevens and other radical Republicans, the League successfully lobbied Harrisburg to pass a statewide ban on the forcible eviction of African American trolley riders.
Securing black male enfranchisement, however, remained the "all important subject of our deliberations and united action."
In an address before a joint session of Congress in 1866, members of the League put it plainly: "Will you, to whom we have given our money in taxes, our lives in battle, to maintain the supremacy of law against secession and anarchy, continue to deprive us of this dearly purchased right to the ballot?"
Through public rallies, petitions, letter-writing campaigns, and other peaceful forms of agitation, the League fought for the passage and ratification of the 15th Amendment. This guaranteed, in part: "The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude."
But like the Emancipation Proclamation before it, the 15th Amendment did little to change the facts on the ground.
"Even then, in the state's largest city, it was only under the protection of a company of U.S. Marines . . . that black Philadelphians were able to cast their votes unmolested by white mobs," observed historian Andrew Diemer.
Catto himself was assassinated on Election Day 1871. His likeness will soon adorn the southwest apron of City Hall.
"The story of black citizenship rights is not, then, one of unambiguous success," Diemer continued. "It is rather a story of constant struggle."
A struggle that persists to this day.
The latest issues of Legacies and the Pennsylvania Magazine of History & Biography explore citizenship, ethnicity, and immigration throughout the commonwealth's 300-plus-year existence. Visit hsp.org/Publications for more information.