Monday, February 17, 2020

Julius Caesar Chappelle and Black Boston

Often the research topics of our patrons inspire us to dig deeper. A recent question about Julius Caesar Chappelle, a prominent African-American legislator and orator in the late 1800’s, made me realize how little I knew about a man who “outside of Lewis Hayden, John J. Smith, and Edwin G. Walker… was one of the best-known colored men in Massachusetts,” so proclaimed his obituary in the Boston Globe.

Portrait from Government of the
Commonwealth of Massachusetts: a souvenir

Chappelle was born into slavery in South Carolina in 1852. He was 13 when slavery was abolished at the end of the Civil War, and he moved with his brothers and other relatives to LaVilla, Florida, a historic African-American town now a suburb of Jacksonville. Several of his brothers became successful businessmen, and his musical prodigy nephew Pat Chappelle would grow up to be a vaudeville legend and famous in his own right.

By 1870, Julius Chappelle decided to move to Boston, a northern city with a thriving African-American community. The capital of the Commonwealth had been a hotbed of abolitionist activism since before the Civil War, and Beacon Hill and the West End had become an important cultural center for African-American Bostonians. Today, this area is home to the Black Heritage Trail supported by the National Park Service. The community was so powerful in that concentrated area that at least one African-American resident had had a seat on Boston’s community council every year between 1876 and 1895 (The Hub, page 231). Initially, Chappelle worked as a janitor at the Boston Herald newspaper, then later a building superintendent at the U.S. Post Office and the United States Boston Customs House. His profession in the State Library’s Legislative Biography File still lists his profession as “janitor.”

Living in Boston’s West End, Chappelle found a mentor in Lewis Hayden, a businessman and lecturer who had also escaped slavery in Kentucky, moved to Boston, and served as a Representative in the Massachusetts General Court in 1873. Hayden introduced Chappelle to the Republican Party and tasked him with registering people to vote. Chappelle would become a life-long Republican. In 1883, Chappelle was elected to the General Court, serving in the House of Representatives until 1886. However, his elections were not without contention, both from Democratic opposition and resistance within his own Republican Party. He was proven the winner by recount several times in his political career. One recount was particularly contentious against Charles Albert Prince, who supposedly beat him for the Ward 9 seat for the 1884-1885 legislative session. While the initial vote had Chappelle the victor by 31 votes, the Board of Alderman proceeded to do a recount of the vote supposedly without Chappell’s knowledge or presence, declaring Prince the victor instead. Chappelle petitioned against the recount, and Prince ultimately resigned his seat in favor of Chappelle, blaming the placement of the stickers on the ballot for the voting confusion. The Boston Globe, however, blamed the Republicans’ mistreatment of African-Americans, even within their own party, for the recounts and charged leading Massachusetts Republicans with racism in a scathing 1885 article entitled "A Sample of Meanness”:

“Amid all the vicissitudes and changes in the Republican party there is one theme on which its stump speakers and its orators never cease to dwell. Under any and all circumstances, when votes are needed, though at no other time, they weep great salt tears over the misfortunes and hardships of the colored man in the South, cry out with righteous indignation against his social and political ostracism, and inform the country and the world, through chosen standard-bearers, that of all the questions now agitating the public mind none is of more than fifth-rate importance when compared with that which has to do with the rights of the Southern colored man and brother… Of course one of the chief impressions desired to be left by these demagogic appeals is that here in the North, and peculiarly in Massachusetts, the colored man is ever cared for with the kindest regard and consideration by his white brethren, and, above all things, is not looked upon as socially or otherwise inferior to any other citizens of the Commonwealth. How contemptibly false and hypocritical are these assumptions was never better illustration than in a case which has just occurred in the Great and General Court.” 

The article went on to describe an incident where, after Chappelle was reinstated to the House of Representatives, his rightful chair was labeled with the name of another white Republican and he was forced to find another “out-of-the-way” chair as he “was colored and they [the Massachusetts Republicans] did not wish to sit by him,” illustrating the hypocrisy in which “he would be good enough when it came to aiding them in voting through their party measures” but otherwise “they wished to have nothing to do with him.” Chappelle was provided another seat in another section after this apparent slight.

During his political career, Chappelle fought for the rights of African-Americans throughout the United States. As a state representative he introduced a resolution against the exploitation of convict labor in the South, which was largely compromised of African-American prisoners:

House Bill No. 88 of 1883 entitled “Resolution Concerning The Employment
Of Convict Labor Upon The Works Or Property Of The United States.”

Chappelle also campaigned against the Prohibition Party, which had been fighting for the prohibition of alcohol since 1867 and was strongly supported by the Ku Klux Klan. After his final term in the General Court, he was elected to the Republican State Committee, the governing body for the Republican Party in Massachusetts, and served three terms. At the height of his prominence in Massachusetts, Chappelle spoke in favor of the Federal Elections Bill, also known as the Lodge Bill so-called for its drafter Rep. Henry Cabot Lodge, which would ensure the rights of African-Americans to vote. He addressed an enthusiastic crowd at Faneuil Hall in 1890 and the New York Age quoted him saying:
“In the days of slavery, they were opposed to freedom and are now opposed to our obtaining our rights. This bill should have passed 25 years ago. We would not have been subjected to the treatment received now. The North and South have always had trouble and will continue to do so until every man has his rights. The vote of the Negro must be counted with as much honesty in South Carolina as any white man's in Massachusetts.”
Unfortunately, the bill was filibustered and was not signed into law.

Chappelle continued speaking at public engagements and was a popular and well-known orator. He was a member of the prestigious Massachusetts Club, of which Frederick Douglass was also a member, and he spoke at memorials for prominent statesmen such as former governor Roger Wolcott and Edward G. Walker, one of the first African-American men to be elected to the Massachusetts General Court and pass the Massachusetts Bar. He died from consumption in 1904 at the age of 52.

Despite his celebrity and political reputation during his life, individuals like Chappelle and other renowned people of color in 19th century Massachusetts have drifted from public memory. Both in February and throughout the year, we should remember the many contributions by the African-American community to Massachusetts history.

Image of Julius C. Caesar included
in his obituary, Boston Globe, January 28, 1904.

Further Reading:

  • Sarah's long walk: the free Blacks of Boston and how their struggle for equality changed America (2004) by Stephen Kendrick and Paul Kendrick
  • The other Brahmins: Boston's Black upper class, 1750-1950 (1994) by Adelaide M. Cromwell

Works Cited:

  • "Fighting for a couple of seats: Chappell probably to be counted in--Colonel Splaine Gets a Recount." Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), Jan 16 1885, p. 6. ProQuest. Web. 
  • "A sample of meanness."Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), Jan 23 1885, p. 2. ProQuest. Web. 4 Feb. 2020 .
  • "Had long been ill: Death of ex-representative Julius Caesar Chappelle, a negro well known in republican politics." Boston Daily Globe (1872-1922), Jan 28 1904, p. 7. ProQuest. 
  • O’Conner, Thomas H. The Hub: Boston Past and Present. Boston, Northeastern University Press, 2001. Page 231.

Alexandra Bernson
Reference Staff