Amos Scott and Politics
Amos Scott (1859-1925) was Philadelphia’s first African-American magistrate. Scott, a former boxer and criminal (arrested for embezzlement and burglary) rose to fame in the Philadelphia political landscape through a relationship with William Vare, a local political boss. In exchange for Scott’s help gaining the South Philadelphia Black vote, the Vare political machine provided him with a job at the Mint, which then allowed Scott to become the first African American in Philadelphia to obtain a liquor license, contrary to Andrew Stevens, Sr.’s original moral code of the Citizens Republican Club. In 1903, due to his rising political fame, Scott became the president of the Citizens Republican Club.
As the Vare machine attempted to gain the Black vote in Philadelphia, Scott, using his influence as a leader within the Citizens Republican Club, became a spokesperson and leader for the African-American community in Philadelphia.
The ideal job for Scott seemed to be the City Magistrate, a position typically rewarded by the party for long-standing service, and due to Scott’s relationship with the Vares, they placed him on the Republican ticket in 1919. However, Scott’s name was dropped from the Republican primary ballot several days before the primary election, spurring the loss of 30,000 to 40,000 Black votes. In the end, J. Hampton Moore won the election for Mayor over the Vare supported candidate Judge John M. Patterson.
On November 4, 1921 thanks to the backing of Charles Hall, a city councilman from the 7th Ward, Amos Scott became Philadelphia’s first African-American magistrate. Scott was now Black Philadelphia’s undisputed political boss, tangible proof of the race’s rising political might.
John Cornelius Asbury
John C. Asbury (1862-1941) was a giant within Philadelphia’s African-American community during the early 1900s, and used his political capital to advocate for equal rights. Born in Washington County, Pennsylvania, Asbury received a law degree from Howard University in 1885.
Once he moved to Philadelphia in 1897, Asbury worked for the Odd Fellows Journal, a publication of the influential African-American fraternity. In 1912, Asbury joined the Citizens Republican Club of Philadelphia and the Party elected him as an alternate delegate to the National Republican Convention. He gained prominence in Black Philadelphia for his success representing African Americans in civil rights cases.
By 1916, Asbury used his connections from the Citizens Republican Club and other networking to become active in Philadelphia politics, receiving an appointment as Assistant City Solicitor, a post he held until 1920. In April 1920, the Republican Executive Committee for the 30th Ward supported Asbury for the Pennsylvania General Assembly, an office he won.
Asbury aspired to affect civil rights advances at the state level. He wasted no time after his election to present House Bill 269, better known as the Asbury Bill, on February 1, 1921. The bill stated that the existence of segregated facilities was a direct violation of the law, and the maximum penalty for segregation would be a $500 fine and 30 days in jail. The House passed his bill. Senator Penrose of Philadelphia told the New York Times on April 3, 1921, “I see no reason why the colored man and colored women should not be able to obtain a cup of coffee at Childs if they want or for that matter go to hotels, cafes, restaurants or other public places frequented by white persons.” However, on April 19, 1921 Senator Penrose withdrew his support and the Asbury Bill died in the Senate.
At a charity fundraiser in 1921, the Citizens Republican Club performed a minstrel show called “Killing the Civil Rights Bill,” with African-American actors, including current Citizens Republican President Edward Henry, in blackface, spoofing the events surrounding the Asbury Equal Rights Bill.
Asbury introduced another Equal Rights Bill to the General Assembly in 1923. That bill too died in Congress. On March 15, 1924, Asbury left Pennsylvania State politics. The reasons surrounding his departure are cloudy, but the Philadelphia Tribune, in 1962, argued that the Vare machine “kicked Asbury out of the state legislature because he tried to force the passage of an equal rights bill.”
Asbury strongly advocated for equal rights in all aspects of life, including equal rights in burial. Historically, many African Americans were buried in the Potter’s Field, with no real dignity. Asbury, using his influence as a prominent member of Black Philadelphia, managed to fence off the section of the cemetery where African-Americans were buried. He later founded the Eden Cemetery in Collingdale, Pennsylvania as a place where African Americans could be buried with dignity and respect.