Washington County was established by the Pennsylvania General Assembly in 1781, while the City of Washington would incorporate as such in 1924 after time as both a town and a borough. Washington’s growth has been inseparable from that of Washington & Jefferson College and Washington’s significant Black population. With a branch of the African Methodist Episcopal Church being founded here two years after the national organization in 1818 and an active NAACP, the community has benefited greatly from those institutions but has also had need for them.
A history of enslavement, segregation, and discrimination exists alongside one of support, perseverance, and success. Policing embodies this within a complicated history both emblematic of systemic racism and in rejection of it.
Photograph of Washington Police Department (1915)
Despite the inequalities faced by Black residents of Washington, there was significant Black representation on the police force in the early twentieth century. William Mull was the first Black officer, beginning his service in 1893. This 1915 photograph of the Washington police force shows that out of thirteen officers, three of them–Clarence Stribling (back left), Ruben Wasler (back right), and William Mull (front left)–were Black. The history of American policing includes the enforcement of legal, or de jure, segregation and though illegal federally, Pennsylvania did not have a constitutional ban on racial discrimination until 2021. As law enforcement is a primary duty of police, these officers had to uphold a structure that discriminated against them, yet they were pioneers as public servants.
“Historic St. Paul A.M.E. Celebrates its 150th Anniversary,” Observer-Reporter (1968)
The African Methodist Episcopal Church (AME) was founded in Philadelphia in 1816 as a place of Christian worship for Black Americans. Two years later, St. Paul AME was founded in Washington with the same mission. The AME Church would grow to be one of the largest predominately Black churches in the nation. The usage of “Black” as a prefix is an outcome of the segregation of religious spaces in the United States. Without the right to attend existing churches, Black Americans formed their own spaces of worship that would become integral parts of social change. Civil Rights leaders like Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., a Baptist minister, based their activism in and around the church as a community center. Though now over 200 years old, St. Paul AME’s 150th anniversary is emblematic of the importance of Black churches in servicing Washington.