A look into Bayard Rustin’s Pennsylvania roots

Chester County History Center’s Juneteenth Walking Tour. (Photo: Pachy Banks-Cabral)/ Bayard Rustin. (Photo: Wikipedia)

Those interested in Black and LGBTQ+ history can visit West Chester, Penn. to learn about the life of civil rights activist and March on Washington organizer, Bayard Rustin. Rustin’s hometown of West Chester is honoring his life with a walking tour that features locations that were significant to him. 

On August 28, 1963, one of the most important events in the Civil Rights Movement, he March on Washington, occurred. About 250,000 people gathered in front of the Lincoln Memorial in Washington, D.C. to bring attention to the challenges and inequalities faced by Black Americans. The chief organizer behind the event was a Black gay man named Bayard Rustin. Rustin worked alongside Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. — who delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech during the march — often behind the scenes due in part to his past and openness about his sexuality. 

“He was somebody who was kind of kept in the background by the influencers of the Civil Rights Movement…he was a multi-faceted person,” said Director of Collections and Curator at the Chester County History Center Ellen Endslow. “And those facets did not necessarily connect with how society viewed people in various parts of his life.” 

Although part of his role in the Civil Rights Movement was helping to create the Southern Christian Leadership Conference (SCLC), Rustin was actually a much more local figure, hailing from West Chester, Pennsylvania. 

Early Life 

Rustin was born in West Chester on March 17, 1912 and was raised by his grandparents. His grandmother, Julia, and her Quaker background are credited with influencing his use of nonviolent resistance, techniques he brought to the Civil Rights Movement. 

He attended Gay Street School, which before school desegregation was the only non-parochial elementary school Black children could attend in the area. His high school however was integrated because there was only one.

Rustin’s resistance against racial inequality started as a young person. Endslow described a time Rustin showed his white friend how he was treated because he was Black. The two went to a restaurant together and never got served. 

He protested the Hotel Warner’s segregation policy when it was still a theater by sitting in the whites-only section. He was removed and arrested for this. 

Chester County History Center’s Juneteenth Talk with Michael Long and tonya thames taylor. (Photo: Sergio Cabral)

A Local Connection to a National Movement

The Chester County History Center has run the Bayard Rustin’s Local Roots exhibit several times over the years. The exhibit was originally created to commemorate what would have been Rustin’s 100th birthday in 2012 and it features seven panels that chronicle his life. 

The History Center worked with family members, people in the local African American community who knew him, and people from the Quaker Friends Meeting. 

They also worked with the art department at Rustin High School. 

“We added to that some graphics that were really student developed,” Endslow said. “We had panels and quotations and printed material, like the program, advertising, postcards, and that sort of thing that were actually designed by Rustin high school students, and there were some students who did not really know who Rustin was until they started working on the project, even though their school has his name.”

The panels have been used by other groups for projects about Rustin when the exhibit is not on display. 

They were put on display once more in August of 2023 to mark the 60th anniversary of the March on Washington. The exhibit was only supposed to be on display for around two months but was extended into November.

On Nov. 17, 2023 Netflix released the movie “Rustin,” which depicts the organizing of the March on Washington. Rustin was played by Philadelphia native Colman Domingo, who has been nominated for an Oscar and Golden Globe for the role.

“The reason we extended all the way into November is because we had a wonderful opportunity to be the Philadelphia regional premiere location for the Netflix “Rustin” movie, and that was very exciting,” Endslow said.

She added that Walter Naegle, Rustin’s partner, gave some remarks at the event before those in attendance watched the movie at the Uptown Knauer Performing Arts Center. 

“It was really fun to be a part of the premiere audience for the region for that movie,” Endslow said. “As you can imagine, it got a lot of rave reviews and the people who knew Rustin, who were in the audience, apparently thought that Colman Domingo did a nice job of representing him.” 

Walking Through Rustin’s Life 

The History Center will be offering two walking tours in June to celebrate Juneteenth and Pride month. One of the tours will be centered on Rustin and feature stops at places that were significant in his life. The other will be on the Underground Railroad.

Anne Skillman, volunteers president, said of Rustin’s walking tour, “Bayard Rustin has been included as a stop on other tours, but with the Netflix film being released, I feel he deserves his own walking tour to help people understand the significance of his upbringing in West Chester. Most of the stories we will be telling are from “Troublemaker for Justice,” written by Walter Naegle, Michael Long and Jackie Houtman.” 

Skillman explained the tour stops via email to PGN: 

● “The History Center. Our center is comprised of two buildings, one of which served as the YMCA from 1908 until the early 1990’s. Bayard Rustin was a gifted athlete, but he was not allowed into the YMCA to practice with teammates.” 

● “West Chester Friends Meeting house to talk about his grandmother, Julia Rustin, who attended school there in the 19th century.” 

● “Washington Square Apartments at one time served as the West Chester Junior High School with the high school right next door. The high school was not segregated. We will cover his high school years and his talents as a public speaker, a tenor in the choir, and an athlete.” 

● “The Hotel Warner which was once the movie theater where Bayard bucked convention and sat in the first floor seats rather than in the balcony — he was promptly arrested.” 

● “We will go to the [Chester County] Historic Courthouse where Bayard led a march for jobs and fair housing in 1966.” 

Although he has often been left out of the story of the Civil Rights Movement, things like the new Netflix movie and the Chester County History Center’s exhibit and walking tour shine a light on Rustin’s contributions. 

For more information on Chester County History Center, visit mycchc.org.

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