Ice cream shops, machine politics, and the unfinished struggle of Pa.’s first Black legislator

By: - February 28, 2021 7:27 am

The Pennsylvania state Capitol (Pennsylvania State Archives)

When Philadelphia attorney Harry Bass went to the Capitol in 1911 to be sworn in to the Pennsylvania General Assembly, he didn’t go alone.

According to the Harrisburg Star-Independent, 300 Black Philadelphians accompanied Bass to march as part of a parade welcoming a new governor — and the newly elected legislators such as Bass — to the capital city on Jan. 17.

They were also accompanied by the O. V. Catto marching band, named in honor of a Black Philadelphia abolitionist and civil rights activist killed by a white man in 1871 while on his way to vote.

So began the four-year career of the first Black lawmaker elected to the Legislature. 

A product of Philadelphia’s winner-take-all machine politics, Bass served during the height of the American progressive era, when government expanded its reach and representation to check big business and party bosses alike. 

Rep. Harry Bass, R-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s first Black state legislator, served from 1911 to 1915.

But Bass and other Black citizens would not see their own civil rights enhanced in that process. His fights reached few conclusions during his time in office — let alone in his lifetime — but he still laid the groundwork for progress in the future.

Born on November 4, 1866 in West Chester, Bass studied at Lincoln University, graduating in 1886, before receiving a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania in 1896.

He lived in the city’s old Seventh Ward, which was centered on Lombard Street in South Philadelphia. This neighborhood, home to W.E.B DuBois at one time, was the heart of Black life in Philadelphia at the turn of the century.

Bass quickly put his law degree to use in court. According to the Times, a Philadelphia daily newspaper, Bass took up the case of a Black renter tossed out of their Bryn Mawr home by a white church in 1900.

At first, the Methodist Episcopal Church did not recognize the light-skinned renter as Black, wrote the Times. When the church discovered its mistake a week later, it issued an eviction notice.

The bigotry on display, Bass said, “would be expected more in a Southern than Northern community,” the Times wrote.

If at first you don’t succeed

But before he had ever tried a case, Bass tried to enter public life. He ran unsuccessfully for state House in 1896 and in 1898, according to a 1996 paper by Eric Ledell Smith, a historian at the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.

At the time, Pennsylvania and Philadelphia politics were dominated by the Republican Party, and the political machine of U.S. Sen. Matthew Quay and later, U.S. Sen. Boies Penrose.

The GOP was also ideologically varied, holding reactionaries and progressives alike. But for Black voters, it was still the party of Abraham Lincoln and emancipation.

At first, Bass eschewed the bosses and ran twice as an independent. But over the next 12 years, Bass seemingly joined the machine.

Bass would finally win office amid political infighting in Philadelphia, said Charles Hardy, a West Chester University history professor who studied the history of Black Philadelphia.

It was 1910 and Penrose, said Hardy, was fighting with a rival group for control of the city.

Tapping Bass for the Legislature was a way to lock up the support of Philadelphia’s small but critical African-American vote for the upcoming election, Hardy said.

Bass also worked for the top of the ticket. The GOP gubernatorial candidate, former baseball player and fellow Penrose pick, John Tener, faced a tough three-way race. So, Bass put his oration to work in front of 5,000 Black voters on the eve of the election, according to the Philadelphia Inquirer

He argued that Tener’s “very countenance and sincerity is enough to convince us that he will treat the colored man with the just consideration that he deserve.”

Tener won, and so, on his third try, did Bass.

Hardy said he hasn’t found any “references to Bass having any prestige or power in Black Philadelphia” at the time. But he still earned the title of the first — and at the time only — Black Pennsylvania legislator.

It would be “a prestigious position that’s symbolically important,” Hardy said. “But there’s no power,” as he served alongside white colleagues from across a state filled with segregation and bigotry.

Optimism still seemed to be in the air. At the invitation of the then-House Speaker, civil rights leader and African Methodist Episcopal Bishop Alexander Walters gave an address to lawmakers on Jan. 31, 1911.

Noting Bass’s ascension, Walters called on the legislature to not let up its backing of the Black community. 

“We have made good since emancipation and unless your patience shall be unexpectedly exhausted, we shall very soon justify your endeavour for our uplift,” Walters told lawmakers, according to the Harrisburg Telegraph.

Pursuing freedom 

Under Tener, the commonwealth did try to uplift society as a whole. Over the next four years, the state created its board of education, the Department of Labor and Industry, a public service commission, the state highway system and implemented direct primary elections.

But Black Pennsylvanians’ civil rights were not strengthened, despite Bass’s efforts.

This was apparent by April 1911, three months after he was sworn in, when a Bass-authored bill to amend the state statute came up for a vote.

The bill would have expanded what counted as discrimination, such as “charging an unusual or excessive price,” according to the Reading Times. It also made it illegal to discriminate in soda water shops, ice cream parlors and confectionary stores, according to the Pittsburgh Courier.

But when the votes were tallied, it failed. Papers noted that the final total in favor was inflated by lawmakers who changed their vote once it was clear the bill wouldn’t pass. 

“Bill Proposed by Colored Man is Voted Down,” read the April 6, 1911 headline in the Wilkes-Barre Times Leader. 

Still, the Black-owned Courier noted that the bill was “the only piece of race legislation that has gotten to [final passage] in recent years,” and credited Bass for making progress.

An accompanying Courier editorial called on Black citizens to contact their state representative about the bill.

“At the election, they tell us nice things and make us rash promises. Now, let them either stand for us or go on record against us,” it said.

In fact, one of Bass’s victories wasn’t something he passed, but what he stopped. 

In April 1913, the Pennsylvania House advanced a bill by one of Bass’s Republican colleagues to ban marriage in Pennsylvania between whites and anyone who had at least “one-eighth African blood.”

Despite opposition, the House would not drop the proposal, wrote the Harrisburg Star-Independent. Then Bass rose to speak, his “remarks being heard with the closest attention.”

According to the Star-Independent, Bass argued that whites had no interest in intermarrying with Blacks, and said that he knew of no Blacks who wished to marry whites. As such there was no reason to pass an unnecessary law.

“The Anglo-Saxon race has always maintained its individuality and does not need to apply the provisions of this bill to crush an already crushed people,” Bass said in another account published by the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.

Bass’s speech was greeted with prolonged applause, according to both papers. He and his colleagues then ruled the bill unconstitutional by 100 votes, defeating it.

While Bass’s speech turning the tide made good news copy, Hardy was skeptical that Bass’s speech was the deciding factor.

“If the white legislators were going to vote for that bill, there’s nothing he could have said or done that would have stopped them from,” Hardy told the Capital-Star. “It sounds mythic, but it doesn’t sound like how legislation actually gets passed or defeated.”

Still, Sen. Vincent Hughes, D-Philadelphia, said it would take a strong person to go into the General Assembly, as Bass did, and wage his fights in the Jim Crow-era.

“You gotta be made of stern stuff to be able to walk into the room and see your surroundings, know most of the people consider you second class, know most of the people in the room think that you’re not worthy …  and not shrink in that moment.”

Try and try again

Bass’s submissive rhetoric makes sense for the time, regardless of its impact, said Liann Tsoukas, a University of Pittsburgh professor of African American history.

“He wanted to persuade them not to pass the law. I can’t imagine what other argument would have worked … no matter what he actually believed,” Tsoukas told the Capital-Star in an email.

The argument supported notions of white supremacy, Tsoukas noted, a tactic she compared to how Black educator Booker T. Washington wooed white philanthropists to support his efforts at Black self-improvement.

And on a sexually charged topic such as marriage, Bass would have to carefully address white anxiety over sexual relationships between Black men and white women, Tsoukas said. White people would lynch Black men on the flimsiest suspicion of it, and such occurrences weren’t just a southern phenomena.

In fact, a Black man, Zachariah Walker, was beaten and burned alive in Coatesville in 1911 — about 15 miles from Bass’s native West Chester. 

Walker’s crime was killing a police officer, and his brutal death at the hands of a white mob shocked Pennsylvania, historians Raymond Hyser and Dennis Downey wrote in a 1987 paper.

In response, Tener announced the state would investigate and punish those responsible, but a “conspiracy of silence” hid the perpetrators and no one was convicted, Hyser and Downey noted.

In the Legislature, the newly-formed NAACP began to lobby for an anti-lynching bill in 1913. A white Philadelphia Republican sponsored the proposal, according to Smith, because a white sponsor would be “perceived as less of a threat to legislators than … Bass.”

The bill would have held counties liable for a lynching, and barred from office law enforcement officials found complicit in the crime. It passed the state House, but died in the Senate.

Bass could claim credit for one success. He passed legislation that created a commission to honor the 50th anniversary of the Emancipation Proclamation, of a 1863 order from President Abraham Lincoln that freed some, but not all, slaves during the Civil War.

Tener signed the commission into law in 1911, and appointed Bass with a number of legislative colleagues to plan a celebration of the semicentennial in Philadelphia. The state allocated $95,000 — roughly $2.5 million in today’s dollars — for the endeavor, which funded art and temporary buildings to house the exhibition.

Bass meanwhile barnstormed the state. His appearance in Pittsburgh made front page news in the Courier. He also swung by other locales from Meadville to Media, encouraging his fellow Black citizens to participate and donate money, according to newspaper accounts. 

Bass served just two terms, before retiring in 1915. Hardy said the short tenure was also a product of Bass’s deal with Penrose. 

But despite leaving Harrisburg, Smith argued his work laid the groundwork for feature pushes for equal rights. An all-white legislature passed a civil rights bill with the backing of the NAACP in 1915, but new Gov. Martin Braumbaugh, a Republican, vetoed the proposal, according to Smith.

The next two Black lawmakers, Philadelphia Republicans John Asbury and Andrew Stevens, would serve together from 1921 until 1925.

Their push for comprehensive civil rights protections had early momentum, but failed when political pressure led Pennsylvania boss Penrose to flip his support to opposition. But a Stevens anti-lynching bill did pass and was signed into law in 1923 by Republican Gov. Gifford Pinchot.

It would take the political turmoil of the Great Depression for the state to finally approve an updated civil rights law in 1935 — a law that Smith noted would be “weakly enforced.”

Bass lived to see none of this. He died suddenly at age 51 on June 9, 1917, and is buried in West Chester. But being the first still deserves commendation, Hughes said, in an institution as built around service and experience as a legislature.

“Congress, city council, state legislature … the more history, the more time you have, the more power you gain,” Hughes said.

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Stephen Caruso
Stephen Caruso

Stephen Caruso is a former senior reporter with Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Before working with the Capital-Star he covered Pennsylvania state government for The PLS Reporter.