|Essay written for the return of the Afrolumens Project in August 2009 and revised June 19, 2020.|
The decision to remove the Afrolumens Project from the web in September 2007, and then again in 2012, was based on my need for time. I wanted to start writing the book that I'd been planning for several years, and a website takes time to maintain. By taking it down, I was able to write that book. Taking the website down also helped me to regain a perspective on the site's intended purpose that I had lost over the years as it grew constantly larger and broader in scope. The revised mission of the Afrolumens Project is to tell the story of Central Pennsylvania's struggle with slavery, antislavery, and all the issues engendered by that struggle.
Before the Afrolumens Project, I authored a much smaller website called "Slavery in Pennsylvania," which was hosted on GeoCities. It was a subject about which I was passionate, and still am. That initial offering to the world wide web is incorporated in the current Afrolumens Project, altough now much enlarged, as the "Slavery" section. In writing the book, I found that my passion for that chapter of local history was stronger than ever, and included all of the slavery-related issues that inflammed the Harrisburg area and the nation from colonial times through the bloodbath that was the Civil War.
Don't worry, I have not removed the 20th Century section of the website. There are many people who have a strong interest in that material, and this is the only place much of it can be found. It will be safely and permanently housed in the Afrolumens Archives, where it may be accessed as usual. In the coming months. I will not be adding to the 20th century material, though. Look for the site to take on a different look and feel, as the emphasis changes to covering the turbulent and violent time period leading up to the Civil War. I will be profiling local abolitionists, colonizationists, slave holders, slave catchers, as well as the people, bound and free, caught between these constantly warring groups.
Wonder and Pride
Writing the book was a wonderful voyage of discovery. I have always been fascinated by local history, and thought I knew a lot about what Harrisburg and the surrounding area was like in colonial through antebellum times. I soon realized, as I got deeper into my research, that I had vastly underestimated the importance of the events in this region, not to mention the power of local social and political alliances, on the national debate over slavery.
Mostly I was impressed by the individual stories I uncovered. The midstate witnessed scenes of brutal violence, dramatic rescues, courageous legislation, and enraging slave hunts. Its history is peppered throughout by acts of bravery, treachery, moral strength, and desparate cowardice. The principle actors in all of this were common people who found their own life threads wound inextricably into the fabric of our national destiny. They were laborers, farmers, soldiers, preachers, teachers, judges, seamstresses, newspaper editors, sheriffs, widows, and merchants.
I love walking through the streets of Harrisburg and imagining the likes of George Chester inviting local abolitionists into his oyster cellar just off Market Street to read the latest issue of The Liberator, or William Bennett sending some of his young chimney sweeps to the river, to watch for fugitive slaves who might be crossing over the Camel Back Bridge, and to intercept them and bring them quickly to his house just behind Chestnut Street, before the local men who engaged in slave catching caught sight of them. Sometimes I try to imagine the scene of panic and confusion among local residents as Harrisburg militiamen, in an attempt to quell the tumult surrounding a slave rescue, rolled a cannon from the state arsenal into position at Third and Walnut Streets, and aimed it eastward at the densly populated African American neighborhood of Tanners Alley.
Events such as these, equally dramatic, occurred in the streets of Lancaster, Reading, Carlisle, York, and in the countless small towns that surround us. Most of them are as unknown today as they were sensational in their time, and taken as a whole, these are the events that, one by one, polarized the public and sectionalized politicians. It was riots in Harrisburg, rebellion in Christiana, strife along the Maryland-Pennsylvania border, threats, kidnappings and murders throughout central Pennsylvania, that led the country into Civil War.
Is it any wonder, then, that I am struck by a strong sense of awe when I ponder the historical significance of our region, and feel a certain pride to be a resident of the same area that was home to so many people who played critical roles, both tragic and proud, in our national history? Too many people see only the well marked fields of Gettysburg when they look to central Pennsylvania for a historical reference, as if that shrine to the turning point in the war for African American liberation materialized by happenstance in the Pennsylvania hinterland. History, however, is never so capricious as to weave such a great event without the warp and woof of lesser events, the threads of which lead directly back to the streets of Harrisburg, the fields of Lancaster, and the rolling hills of York. That was my discovery, twelve years ago, and that is why I brought back the Afrolumens Project: to share the inspiring story of how the people of the Harrisburg region struggled to progress from slavery to freedom.
Support the Afrolumens Project. Buy the books:
The Year of Jubilee, Volume One: Men of God, Volume Two: Men of Muscle