A century-and-a-half ago, before the Civil War, no one could have imagined equal rights for African Americans, let alone a black man one day becoming president of the United States.
Before the war to end slavery, the only time a black person would become a noteworthy subject would be on a poster, listing him as a runaway slave. The underground railway, a route of safe houses used by runaways to flee north, was common in Pennsylvania's northeast and central counties.
There were safe houses for runaways throughout the Carbon-Schuylkill-Monroe county region. In the mid-1850s Congress passed a fugitive slave bill which allowed slave owners to pursue their escapees into free states. One common slave route ran from Philadelphia to Pottsville, Tamaqua, Hazleton and Wilkes-Barre.
Before the Civil War, some slave owners were seen as villains by northerners. In one instance a posse of slave hunters followed a runaway to Wilkes-Barre, where he tried to flee by jumping into the Susquehanna River. A mob of local residents made it clear that the slave hunters were not wanted there and drove them off.
"The exhausted negro was on the river bank and one of Wilkes-Barre's most refined ladies had covered him with some of her own garments," a Scranton newspaper reporter said.
In 1909, the most prominent black man in the world was boxer Jack Johnson who was born to former Texas slaves. Although he dominated the prize fighting ring, he was despised for his arrogance by most white Americans.
Ken Burns, in his television documentary on Johnson, stated, "For more than 13 years Jack Johnson was the most famous and the most notorious African-American on Earth."
In an opinion on May 20, 1909, a writer for the Tamaqua Courier showed antipathy for the black race.
"We fought a war to give the negro his freedom but way down deep in us we never did like him," he said after commenting about a boxing match. "It may be un-Christianlike and we may all be 'brothers under the skin' but still and all, we have a natural antipathy for the negroes that all our prayers and our good resolutions cannot smother."
His comments came just days before a meeting in New York City which resulted in the establishment of The National Association for the Advancement of Colored People.
Years after this group was organized, the black man still had a difficult road to travel. Lynchings were common in the south in 1909, when nearly 10 million blacks made up about 10 percent of the American population. That year, some 69 blacks were known to have been lynched. The Courier reported that Thomas Willis, a black man, was hanged for murder in Wilkes-Barre on October 14, 1909.
In one case a white woman said a Negro assaulted her in Springfield, Ill. Hundreds of people were driven from their homes during a mob uprising which led to the burning of the town and the lynching of two innocent men.
The mob rioted for two days and the militia of the entire state was called out. Later, police found that the woman's charge was false. She published a retraction and the indictment was dismissed but that was too late for the two lynched victims and the hundreds left homeless.
In parts of the deep south, the race hatred was especially intense. Incredibly, in 1909 mobs were also blamed for 28 human burnings at the stake. One of the executions involved a woman and two of the victims were children.
Ida B. Wells-Barnett was a fearless anti-lynching crusader, women's rights advocate, journalist, and speaker. A Mississippi native who was born during the Civil War, Wells was just 22 when she literally began to fight for racial and gender justice after an incident in Memphis.
Regarding lynchings and mob murders in America, Wells said in a speech in 1909 how these killings were motivated by color, had become a national problem and required a national remedy.
She also said that crimes against women were not an excuse to murder.
"The cowardly lyncher revels in murder," she said, then seeks to shield himself from public execration by claiming devotion to women. But the truth is mighty and the lynching record discloses the hypocrisy of the lyncher as well as his crime," she said.
Wells-Barnett added, "This is the awful indictment against American civilization – the gruesome tribute which the nation pays to the color line."
Under the banner of a "Christian nation" the crusader wondered how such mob murder could be permitted.
Just two months after the hanging of a black man, Wilkes-Barre was again in the news, but this time for something just as incredible – white slave trading.
A news report filed just 11 days before Christmas in 1909 stated that white slave traffic had reached such proportions in the city that "it was necessary to report the matter to authorities." One New York slave trader was reportedly arrested and a half dozen others were being sought in what one official called "a general cleaning up in the city."