Hands-On History features stories that focus on history in practice at museums and historic sites throughout Pennsylvania.

Many individuals tend to overlook the political work championed by Black abolitionists during the second half of the nineteenth century. Instead, they celebrate slavery’s demise and then suddenly move on to the civil rights movement of the twentieth century, possibly unaware of what took place on the nation’s streets and in legislative offices and courtrooms from the 1860s through the 1890s. The African American abolitionists who once risked their lives aiding runaway slaves later played a pivotal role in the formation of the predecessor of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) — the National Equal Rights League (NERL).

In the early 1830s, African American citizens organized the Colored Citizens League, a nationwide coalition of antislavery activists and a self-sustaining political organization aimed at persuading lawmakers to abolish slavery and repeal Black Codes. The league utilized many campaign methods, such as sit-ins and lecture tours. It helped vigilance and Underground Railroad committees protect free Blacks from kidnapping and escaped slaves from recapture. It encouraged international successes when Black operatives traveled abroad to encourage citizens of Canada and the British Isles to become engaged in the freedom struggle.

The appearance of a strong organization was, however, misleading. The activists’ experiences were frustrating and, by 1854, nearly half of those involved in the coalition had endorsed the emigration of free citizens to “Negro colonies” in Canada and Africa. Many members eventually abandoned the United States and settled beyond its borders. Nevertheless, the corollaries of the American Civil War presented much hope. On October 20, 1864, nearly six months before the war ended, 144 members of the Colored Citizens League met at the National Negro Convention, held in Syracuse, New York, to create NERL.

Under the chairmanship of John Mercer Langston (1829–1897), an attorney and educator, NERL functioned as the first special interest group that concentrated on an array of issues, such as providing pensions for Black veterans, striking from many state constitutions the coercive word “white,” ensuring Negro suffrage, fair education, equal pay, the right for Blacks to sit on juries, and the desegregation of independent fraternal lodges. Langston believed the league would be a vital instrument “to promote the interests of our people at home . . . and to defend our race when assaulted.” Utilizing old organizational methods of the Colored Citizens League, NERL’s founders established state and local auxiliaries to assist in the nationwide effort to organize African American citizens and raise money for the organization’s ambitious agenda.

Individuals involved in the Equal Rights League Movement were members of the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Zion Society or the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, and, in most cases, a member of both. Affiliation with the AME Zion Church and the Odd Fellows made it easy for solicitors of NERL to recruit membership for state leagues. By April 1865, twelve states had formed equal rights auxiliaries, and by October every state in the North claimed an operational auxiliary.

Leading the way was the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League (PSERL), made up of the most loyal and ruthless activists in the struggle for freedom. William Nesbit (1817–1886) of Hollidaysburg, Blair County, a former emigrationist, was its president. Joseph Cassey Bustill (1822–1895), Harrisburg’s most notable Underground Railroad operative, served as its corresponding secretary. The Freedman’s Bureau’s chief superintendent and co-founder of NERL, William Howard Day (1825–1900), of Harrisburg, became PSERL’s foremost lecturer. To increase membership, Day traveled throughout the Commonwealth, encouraging African American citizens “in every city, town and village” to form auxiliaries by inviting “the co-operation of all Churches, Lodges, and other existing Associations for the advancement” of the equal rights debate.

One of Pennsylvania’s most noteworthy auxiliaries was the Garnet League, organized in Harrisburg in September 1865. The Garnet League’s first fundraiser included a “pay lecture” featuring Day, for decades known as a “matchless orator, who never used a scrap of paper, not even to verify historical facts and dates.” Levi Jenkins Coppin (1848–1924), an AME minister (and later bishop), called Day “a veritable cyclopedia of facts.” Frederick Douglass (1818–1895) once wrote that Day was a “sanguine” orator with “a finely stored memory, from which he could draw at will.”

Day was not immune to the factors that weighed heavily on those involved in the Garnet League. “Political equality might not be conceded to the negro of today, or tomorrow, or in a year hence,” he advised audiences, “but equality before the law would come — must come — because God rules on earth as well as in heaven!” In six months, Day helped the Garnet League successfully lobby Harrisburg’s school board to furnish a school for Black students in the city’s Fourth Ward and construct a “reading-room” for members. He advised on the publication of essays about the color-line that were read throughout the Commonwealth. The league provided legal counsel to William Bush, a United States Colored Troops (USCT) veteran, who was “unmercifully beat[en]” shortly after returning home from the war “by a gang of rowdies . . . and afterwards thrust into prison because he was a colored man.” The league effectuated his release. The auxiliary also had Bush’s assailants arrested and charged with assault with intent to kill. “By this act,” one observer proclaimed, “you have taught those vagrants that there is an organization among us that will not suffer black men to be maltreated with impunity.” According to one recollection published in the Christian Recorder on December 23, 1865, the organization “succeeded in giving to the colored soldiers of this State, a reception worthy of their heroic deeds.”

To Harrisburg, from the rolling mountains of New England, came the excitement and flurry of hundreds of African American citizens. On November 14, 1865, Pennsylvania’s capital was thronged by nearly one thousand visitors wishing to honor the 180,000 African American soldiers who fought for the Union. The Grand Review featured a parade beginning at the capitol that marched along the western bank of the Susquehanna River, where soldiers were reviewed by former Secretary of War Simon Cameron (1799– 1889) and Brigadier General Joseph Barr Kiddoo (1840–1880) of the USCT. The marchers proceeded through the Eighth Ward, the city’s predominantly Black neighborhood, before finally convening at the east end of the capitol grounds, now Soldiers and Sailors Grove. (The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission installed a state historical marker at the formal tree-lined mall in 2006 to commemorate the USCT Grand Review.) Several members of the Garnet League delivered speeches, including Day, hailed as “the Champion Orator of American Negroes.” The day concluded with a ball at a hotel.

During the summer of 1866, PSERL management alleged that the so-called “banner League” had failed to pay lecture fees and hoarded membership dues that were supposed to be transferred to the treasury of the state office. Bustill discovered misappropriations in the actions of the Garnet League and reported them to Nesbit. At the annual meeting, vowing that “the State League had been most cruelly deceived,” Bustill informed his colleagues that the league engaged in “a scheme of the most consummate hypocrisy ever inaugurated among us.” The organization, one of fifty in existence at the time in the Commonwealth, could not be vindicated. On August 10, 1866, it was formally dissolved.

Despite titan clashes of ideals, NERL operated with relative success until 1882. The organization assisted in desegregating public schools, juries, and public transportation. The league also protected Black voters. Its efforts helped propel the ratification of the Thirteenth, Fourteenth, and Fifteenth Amendments, and were a catalyst for the Republican Party’s success during the latter half of the nineteenth century. Often overshadowed by the NAACP, NERL was, nonetheless, one of the most influential organizations relating to civil rights, despite the fact that few people know about it and its legacy.


Todd M. Mealy, a resident of Lancaster, was born in Bradford, McKean County. He received his B.A. from Millersville University and a historical research certificate from Wadham College in Oxford, England. He currently teaches history at Penn Manor High School in Millersville, Lancaster County, where he regularly engages students in civil rights projects and trains educators in developing lesson plans on the Underground Railroad. The author helped develop a digital program for the Abraham Lincoln Cottage in Washington, D.C. He is the author of Biography of an Antislavery City: Antislavery Advocates, Abolitionists, and Underground Railroad Activists in Harrisburg, Pa., (2007) and Aliened American: The Biography of William Howard Day (2010).