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Old Chester, PA: Biographical Sketches

William Henry Ridley, Esquire


William Henry Ridley, Esq.; Photo courtesy of the Ridley Family Archives & Sam Lemon, great-grandson

William Henry Ridley, Esq.

Photographs courtesy of
the Ridley Family Archives and
Samuel M. Lemon, M.S.,

samlemon@comcast.net,
Great-grandson

William Henry Ridley, Esq.'s Business Card; Photo courtesy of the Ridley Family Archives & Sam Lemon, great-grandson

Business Card of
William Henry Ridley, Esq.

William Henry Ridley, Esq.

(A biographical sketch by Samuel M. Lemon, M.S., samlemon@comcast.net, great-grandson of William H. Ridley)

William H. Ridley, Esq. - a pioneer of the legal profession
by Samuel M. Lemon, M.S.

The late William Henry Ridley, Esquire - Delaware County's first African American attorney, whose office once stood at 1707 West Third Street in Chester - was a true pioneer. There are few alive today, who remember this remarkable man. But like any trailblazer, the legacy he left cut a path through the nearly impenetrable forest of the obstacles of his time, for other men and women of color to follow.

The story of the man often called, "Lawyer Ridley," begins with his parents - Cornelius Ridley and Martha Jane Parham - former slaves on neighboring plantations in Southampton County, Virginia. Separately, they escaped during the Civil War, and later reunited here in Media, where they were taken in by Isaac and Elizabeth Smedly Yarnall - local Quakers who lived on Providence Road. As they began to find work and establish themselves here, they later moved to the little house on the corner of Front Street and Providence Road, which is now known as the "Minshall House." It was there, on June 12, 1867, that William Henry Ridley born.

Cornelius and Martha Jane Ridley became respected members of the community and obtained gainful employment. As deeply spiritual people, they were among the founders of Campbell A.M.E. Church, at the corner of Third and Olive Streets. Martha Jane took in laundry and did whitewashing on houses. Cornelius drove a delivery wagon for Hawley & Snowden's Hardware Store on State Street in Media. They worked hard and saved their money. And in 1872, they bought a small house which formerly stood at 308 North Olive Street. The home remained in the family for over a century, before it was eventually torn down.

William was sickly as a child, which caused a delay in his starting school. He was quite a daydreamer, and when he was little, his mother would tie a rope to his belt, so he wouldn't wander off. He later attended Media Public High School, and graduated with honors on June 9, 1887 - a significant achievement for anyone in those days, but especially for a person of color.

Shortly after graduation, he began to prepare for a career in law, by studying in the office of Louis H. Richards - a prominent local attorney at the time. Four years later, on March 23, 1891, after passing the bar examination, he was admitted to the Delaware County Bar, and became "Esquire." To further his knowledge of the law, Ridley worked in the Prothonotary and Recorder of Deeds offices in the Delaware County Court House. He also took courses at the University of Pennsylvania Law School.

However, Ridley's legal career - as well as his life - were nearly cut short when he narrowly escaped being assassinated in Chester in September of 1889. As it was reported in the Chester Times, Ridley and a couple of other young law students were in Chester passing out circulars for their candidate - John B. Robinson - who was running against Jesse Baker in a hotly contested state election. As they were leaving the Colonnade Hotel about 1 o'clock in the morning, they were attacked by members of the Hanley Hose Company, who were supporters of the rival candidate. A wild exchange of gunfire erupted with Ridley leaping onto a passing carriage driven by his friends, with bullets whizzing after them as they raced up Edgmont Avenue. Ridley had been shot in the leg, the horse in two places, and the carriage had taken five bullets. Ridley was soon brought to trial on the charge of attempted murder. But after reliable witnesses - and nearly half of the Bar Association - testified that Ridley had in fact acted in self-defense, Capt. Isaac Johnson - the presiding judge - let the young law student off with a $25 fine and a fatherly reprimand.

Ridley's life was full of drama. In the early 1920's, Ridley was at his Olive Street home in Media, when the Ku Klux Klan showed up in his backyard, fully dressed in white hoods and robes. They were reportedly looking for an American Indian who had been seen in the vicinity. Ridley's son-in-law had just come in from work, and had been mistaken for the man the Klan was looking for.

"Lawyer" Ridley, walked outside - unarmed this time - and spoke with the mob. He apparently knew many of them, despite their white hoods. Taken as a man of his word, the Klansmen finally accepted his explanation and left. They then marched up Olive Street to Sandy Bank hill, where they held a cross-burning ceremony.

William H. Ridley, Esq., had a distinguished career as a practicing attorney that spanned an incredible 54 years. Widely respected, his clients were both black and white, prosperous and poor. He maintained law offices in Chester and West Chester, and practiced out of his home in Media as well.

Ridley served in the army during the Spanish American War and World War I. When the United States first recognized the country of Liberia, William was a leading candidate for first Ambassador. However, he would often turn down prestigious appointments which would take him far away from his home and family. Ridley was a contributing author of several important pieces of legislation, and his opinion was often sought on numerous complex legal matters. Many of his white friends went on to become judges. But he was not able to overcome this final hurdle due to racism - which was a great disappointment to him, after all he had accomplished in the legal profession.

To fully appreciate how much of a pioneer in the legal profession Ridley really was, it is important to remember that by 1960, there had only been a total of three African American members of the Delaware County Bar (including Ridley). And nearly 80 years would pass between the county's first African American attorney and its first black judge - the Honorable Robert A. Wright.
   
Always active in public affairs, Ridley ran for County Commissioner in 1935. He was also an avid sports fan who enjoyed watch the boxing matches at "Baron" Jimmy Dougherty's hotel and boxing arena in nearby Leiperville. Some of America's greatest heavyweight boxers - like Jack Johnson and Jack Dempsey - frequented Dougherty's Leiperville Hotel to watch the up and coming young fighters in this region.

William H. Ridley died on February 1, 1945 at 10 p.m., at his home on Olive Street in Media. Shortly afterwards, on February 9, 1945, at the Delaware County Court House, a special resolution of the Delaware County Bar Association was read, to mark the death of William H. Ridley, Esq. This resolution began with a tribute to William's father, Cornelius Ridley. It read: "No man stood higher in the estimation of the people of the County than Cornelius Ridley." Quite a tribute, for a man who had been born a slave.
   
The resolution ends with: "…in the death of William H. Ridley the County of Delaware has been deprived of the services and influence of a respected citizen, his family a loving husband and parent, and the Bar of Delaware County of a lawyer who maintained the highest principles of the profession." Newspaper articles from the February 14, 1945 edition of the Chester Times (now, the Delaware County Daily Times) included quotes from other members of the Delaware County Bar Association who knew William Ridley. Among the comments reported were:

"When Mr. Ridley was admitted, his people were just coming out of slavery."
-- Henry Gouley

"Today it is nothing unusual in a colored man practicing law, but to go back 50 years, it was a real achievement."
-- Robert B. Greer

"He was born with a problem he had to surmount; he had to prove superior to prejudices which do exist, whether we wish they existed or not. And, in his individual life, I think he won very completely the right to the acceptance that we all talk about…"
-- Judge E. Wallace Chadwick

"He became a leader and an advocate, of sterling qualities, and every respect was shown him, for his courage and urbanity."
-- Judge Albert Dutton MacDade

"It was phenomenal for a man of Bill Ridley's race to become a member of the Bar, and he had to do it alone, depending only on his own courage and ability."
    -- Samuel A. Montgomery

The great scholar John Hope Franklin once said: "If we can see farther today, it is because we are standing on the shoulders of giants who came before us." One need not look far to find real heroes. Simply look to your ancestors, and others in your family.

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[* - Samuel M. Lemon is the great-grandson of the late William H. Ridley, Esq. He resides in Media, PA All photos - courtesy of the Ridley Family Archives. March 2002]

William Henry Ridley, Esq. in the Recorder of Deeds Office; Photo courtesy of the Ridley Family Archives & Sam Lemon, great-grandson
William Henry Ridley, Esq. in the Recorder of Deeds Office

Photograph courtesy of the Ridley Family Archives and
Samuel M. Lemon, M.S.,
samlemon@comcast.net, Great-grandson

Another picture of William Henry Ridley, Esq. with the Delaware County Bar Association & Board of Judges c. 1891-1893

[Obituary]

 

 

 

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2002, 2003 John A. Bullock III.

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This page last updated 10/17/05