Pennsylvania State Capitol (Pennsylvania State Archives)
When Philadelphia attorney Harry Bass went to Capitol Hill in 1911 to be sworn in at the Pennsylvania General Assembly, he did not go alone.
According to the Harrisburg Star-Independent, 300 black Philadelphians accompanied Bass to march in a parade welcoming a new governor – and newly elected lawmakers such as Bass – to the capital on January 17.
They were also accompanied by the OV Catto Marching Band, named after a black Philadelphia abolitionist and civil rights activist killed by a white man in 1871 while going to vote.
Thus began the four-year career of the first black legislator elected to the Legislative Assembly.
A product of Philadelphia’s takeout machine policy, Bass served at the height of the American Progressive Era, when the government expanded its reach and representation to control big business and party leaders.
Representative Harry Bass, R-Philadelphia, Pennsylvania’s first black state lawmaker, served from 1911 to 1915.
But Bass and other black citizens would not see their own civil rights strengthened in this process. His struggles led to few conclusions during his tenure – let alone during his lifetime – but he always laid the groundwork for progress in the future.
Born 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.
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