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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle

 

Table of Contents

Study Areas:

Slavery

Anti-Slavery

Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War

Part Three
Approaching Storms

Chapter Seven
Rebellion

The Pioneering Entrepreneurs

Freedom from the bonds of slavery did not guarantee independence from white influence for Harrisburg’s African Americans. One of the key indicators of racial independence, as noted above, was the ability to live free in a house or quarters not owned by a white employer. By 1820, not only had the percentage of blacks living free of white households grown, but the number of blacks living in independent black households had more than tripled. This is a significant accomplishment for Harrisburg’s black community for two reasons. First, it shows the trend of independence from white influence to be solidly rising over a ten-year period. Second, it gives evidence that Harrisburg blacks were gaining economic power along with social independence.

The arrangement of bed and board for a live-in servant ultimately benefited the employer, who deducted the cost of the living arrangement from wages earned by the servant and used the arrangement as a hook to keep the servant on site at all hours. This severely limited the free time available to the servant, and thus limited their social interactions and ability to earn money independently in their free time. It was the most common living arrangement for free African Americans in this region through 1800, and therefore served to keep them highly dependent on white citizens.

Through 1810, at least, the only option of escaping this cycle of dependence was to find lodging away from the employer, which was difficult because it required not only enough extra money to pay rent, but it also meant the servant had to find someone willing to host the lodger at a meager rate. A few fortunate African American families in Harrisburg were independent enough, by the end of this first decade of the nineteenth century, to be able to rent a house in Harrisburg, into which they allowed a few boarders as a way to supplement the household income. This gesture of practicality and hospitality became the first step toward financial independence for those servants lucky enough to secure such an arrangement. Such families, however, were a rarity in 1810, and the process of gaining independence proceeded at a slow rate.

Sometime between 1816 and 1821, however, the balance tipped toward a sufficient supply of independent housing for African Americans living in and arriving in Harrisburg. Two men in particular were responsible for this change, and they represented a new and dynamic type of African American resident of Harrisburg: the African American entrepreneur.

 

Zeke Carter

Ezekiel “Zeke” Carter came to Harrisburg as a youthful free African American man from Talbot County, Maryland about 1800. Life for free African Americans in the Chesapeake region in 1800 was very difficult, and many found their lives as severely limited as those of their enslaved brethren did. Their numbers increased greatly after the Revolutionary War, and by 1800, there were 20,000 free blacks in that state. Facing very bleak chances for advancement, many young people took to the road when they saw their chance, heading north to seek their fortune in the towns and cities of Pennsylvania.16

Carter was a wood sawyer by trade, in the prime of his life at twenty-six years of age when he arrived in Harrisburg, and like the rest of Harrisburg’s free blacks that year he apparently found work and lodging through a white employer. Unlike the situation in his native Talbot County, a growing Harrisburg presented the young and ambitious Ezekiel Carter with numerous opportunities for personal advancement. He found plenty of work as a sawyer, supplying the hardwoods for Harrisburg’s numerous stoves and ovens. The work was hard, and involved converting a heap of oak or hickory logs and cordwood dumped in the street in front of a home into neatly stacked billets cut to size to fit in the stove.

As a sawyer, Zeke Carter took advantage of being able to talk to the housewives and shopkeepers as he worked, and discovered that there were other opportunities to provide needed services. He acquired the use of a cart and found work hauling items through the borough streets. During the summer, when rain barrels ran dry from lack of precipitation and housewives found the local well water too hard to use for laundry, Zeke Carter hauled river water in barrels to the borough’s dry households at fifty cents per barrel.

Zeke Carter’s most lucrative operation, though, was chimney sweeping. Prior to the regular shipment of coal by raft down the Susquehanna River from Wilkes-Barre, the fuel of necessity in Harrisburg stoves and fireplaces was wood. The same wood that Zeke Carter turned from rough logs to neatly stacked cords, once it had heated a home or baked a loaf of bread, left volumes of ash in the firebox and residues of creosote and soot in the chimney. The ash had to be removed before another fire could be made, and the soot residue had to be scoured out of the chimney by hand regularly, or it would build up in volume and eventually catch fire.

A fire inside of the chimney was a frightening and truly dangerous event; it was difficult to put out and was capable of burning the entire structure to the ground. Even if a fire did not occur, a dirty chimney lacked the draft needed for an efficient fire. Most of the chimneys in Harrisburg houses were large, and cleaning them was extremely messy. Carter began to offer chimney sweeping, and employed local African American boys to do the work. The young boys “were on the street early in the morning before people made their fires, singing their peculiar songs, and when employed to clean a chimney, entering at the fireplace, after reaching the top of the chimney sung a short impromptu song to let people know that they had reached the top.”17

By 1810, “Zikel Carter” was listed as the head of an independent African American household consisting of five people. Unfortunately, the census forms in 1810 did not break down the non-white free residents by age and sex, so we cannot be sure the other four persons were family members, but this seems likely considering Ezekiel Carter was now in his mid-thirties and had been in town long enough to court and marry a local woman. He had three children, one of whom, Ezekiel Jr., married a Harrisburg woman named Mary Wilson, in November 1832. So it is possible that the other four African Americans of this household are his wife and three children.

His household was located near two other free African American households, those of Robert Carr (with four people) and John Battis (with five people). These homes were clustered in the block bordered by Third and Fourth streets and between Market and Walnut streets, situated on the northern limits of the town in 1810. Running east and west through the center of this block was Strawberry Alley, which was where Carter was located.

The location in its earliest years was not in ideal one. The block was considerably removed from the town’s business center, which was still concentrated along Front Street. And because it had been only ten years since the swampy ground at Second and Market was filled in and stabilized, businesses were just beginning to move to the east along Mulberry Street, Second Street, and into Market Square.

There was a large tan yard adjoining the public ground on Walnut Street, which would have regularly blanketed the neighboring block with the strong odors associated with the tanning of animal hides. The land itself between Market and Walnut streets was marshy, and runoff collected into a stream east of Fourth Street that drained into Paxton Creek.

To the north, the “public ground” that bordered this neighborhood, set aside by John Harris for use of the state, was considered by townspeople to be literally for public use. It was a source of gravel and loam sand, and “consequently it was full of gravel pits and sand holes in all directions.” Construction of the new capitol building took place on the neighboring site between 1819 and 1821. In the course of the next ten years, though, this block became a center of African American community life for Harrisburg, providing jobs, shelter, social opportunities, and inspiration to those who looked for a way out of the cycle of dependence and poverty that had been fostered by a century of slavery.18

Ezekiel Carter’s chimney sweeping business supported his family, provided jobs, and most importantly to the local African American community, allowed the ambitious wood sawyer from the shores of the Chesapeake to strive for greater accomplishments. He had arrived in Harrisburg when the borough was only about fifteen years old and right from the start he had prospered. He witnessed the steady growth of the young town and, as one of the first free African Americans in the borough to acquire an independent household, quickly grasped the value of controlling property as a means of building wealth.

With the earnings from his various enterprises, he had, by 1807, purchased one or more “houses” on Strawberry Alley, and began to rent space out to newly arriving African Americans. This move completely changed the dynamic of white employer-African American servant relationships in Harrisburg because it provided a place for blacks to stay other than in the household of their employer. Instead of being bound by the constricting confines, hours, and rules of living inside a white employer’s house, African Americans could stay at “Zech’s House” in Strawberry Alley and retain some of their independence, for a price.

This was a tremendous boon to this segment of the local work force, the ones most likely to have the laboring jobs and the dimmest prospects, because for the first time they had options. Prior to this, servants who were in a bad employment situation were often forced to stay because they had nowhere else to go. Once Zeke Carter began providing space to local African Americans, it removed much of the power previously held by the town’s white employers over their African American servants.

This opportunity was even more valuable for newly arriving African Americans, as it gave them a place to stay while they considered their options. Ezekiel Carter’s boarding house was located in the heart of a growing African American community, providing new arrivals to the borough access to social opportunities, news, and jobs, three of the most valuable tools for building a new life.

The popularity of his boarding houses—he appears to have been operating two or more houses, including one on Market Street by 1822—is seen in the list of people registered by the borough constable as staying with him. In 1821, as noted above, Harrisburg passed an ordinance requiring all “free persons of color” to register with the chief burgess. From the surviving registration dockets, nineteen people registered their address in one of the African American boarding houses controlled by Carter either in Strawberry Alley or on Market Street.19 Carter was prosperous enough by 1825 that, when twenty local men were indicted for riot in the attempted rescue of the fugitive slave at the courthouse in April, he was the only African American property holder in Harrisburg with sufficient cash available to come forward and post bail for one of the rioters.

 

John Battis

Very near Carter’s house and business was the home of John Battis, who operated a rival chimney sweeping business from his Walnut Street location. Battis was in the town of Harrisburg as early as 1810, being enumerated in the census that year as “Bets” or “Betz.” By 1820, John Battis’ household was very large, consisting of nine individuals, predominantly young and male. When he registered with the chief burgess the following year, Battis listed only himself, his wife Nancy and one-year-old son James as family.

These other young men in his household were probably sweeps in his business. Like Zeke Carter, John Battis offered newly arrived African Americans a place to stay and employment in his business. The 1821 Registry of free African Americans shows that fourteen persons other than his immediate family were staying with John Battis on Walnut Street. Five of the persons registered at Battis’ house were named Johnston, three of whom were David Johnston, his wife Marie and their eighteen-month-old child, all from Philadelphia. Also at Battis’ house was one other married couple, George Colly and his wife, and seven other single young men.

In contrast, Zeke Carter’s houses sheltered five families, four of which had at least one child, and only two single persons, one male and one female. Carter and Battis do not appear to have reserved their rooms specifically for either local or visiting persons. In all the houses, the renters and boarders represented a mix of local and newly arrived persons, some from nearby counties, and some from outside of Pennsylvania.

There were other African American businessmen, in addition to Ezekiel Carter and John Battis, who allowed workers to share their families’ homes. Whitewasher William White and his wife Susanna, from Philadelphia, shared their Market Street residence with James and John Kelly, both of whom were also registered as whitewashers. John Kelly had come from Maryland, but James Kelly’s state of birth was not mentioned.

In some cases, a variety of boarders shared the same house, despite having no common trade or place of origin. On Front Street, George Parker was listed as a “mettelrite by trate” in a house owned by Robert Harris. Another tradesman, weaver Lot Stout, and his wife Louisa, lived in the same house with Parker. The Stouts were from Delaware, but had been in Harrisburg for three years already, as servants of Henry Hamilton. James Powell, of Maryland, also lived in this house, as did two women from neighboring Pennsylvania counties: Elizabeth King of York County, and Mary Sanders of Cumberland County.20

Robert Harris was living in the mansion house during this time, but he also owned houses along South Front and South Second streets. All these people were registered as residing in one of Robert Harris’ Front Street houses. As Robert Harris maintained a very large farm that extended from around South Front Street below the mansion, eastward out modern day Paxton Street as far as the current site of Mount Calvary Cemetery, at Thirteenth Street, the aforementioned persons could have been occupying one of his farm houses, possibly even the log house at Paxton and Race Streets that had been built by Robert Harris’ father, John Harris II, before construction of the stone mansion.

That building earlier had been an inn, The Black Horse Tavern, one of several inns operating near Front and Paxton streets that catered to the many travelers crossing the Susquehanna by ferry. Prior to the opening of the Market Street Bridge in 1817, this neighborhood was one of the prime business districts of the borough, but once the bridge opened and the popularity of the ferry waned, this area experienced a downturn. What was bad for local businessmen, however, was good for local free African Americans, who could now afford to board in rooms and houses in this neighborhood.21

 

James McClintock

The James McClintock family first appeared as an independent African American household in Harrisburg in 1820, as enumerated by the census taker that year, with a household that included thee male children and one female child. From the borough registration dockets for African Americans citizens, recorded in 1821, we know that James McClintock and his wife Lydia resided on Third Street. We also know that James was earning his living as a barber, an occupation that would be dominated by African American residents in Harrisburg for the next several decades. James McClintock was the only barber noted on the African American registry, and is possibly the first professional African American barber in town. He would be joined in short order by numerous other African American barbers who frequently set up shop at street level inside of some of the town’s prominent hotels in order to serve the white citizenry of the borough. Several generations of McClintocks would follow James in the family business.

In 1821, the McClintock household made room for a boarder: a newly freed slave. Belle Buey, a slave belonging to James Alricks at his home in Fermanagh Township, Juniata County, was brought by Alricks from Juniata to Perry County, and then to Harrisburg some time before 1815 “where he entered mercantile pursuits.” After her association with Alricks ended, Buey found housing with the McClintock family. It appears that James McClintock prospered in his business fairly quickly, as by 1825 he had become the wealthiest of the town’s six African American property holders, being taxed for six properties.

Despite having such a large stake in property, and being the responsible head of a thriving household, James McClintock risked all these things to participate in the rescue operation in 1825. He was easily identified as a participant and was arrested almost immediately thereafter, but was apparently not significantly harmed by the outcome of the trial. Perhaps he was one of the eight men released by the authorities, and escaped punishment on the treadmill. By 1830, he was again listed at the head of his household, and had managed to maintain his wealth.

 

George Chester

Another African American businessman who made his appearance in Harrisburg about this time was George Chester. Chester is first found in the census of 1820, in which he appears as the head of an independent African American household of three people: one male and one female adult, and one male child. This small family unit matches the entry for the Chesters one year later, in the town’s registry of free African Americans. In that docket, George Chester, his wife Hanna, and seven-year-old child are all shown as residing in Dewberry Alley, in Harrisburg.

George told the record taker that he had been born in Maryland, and that he served his time with Thomas Collins in that state. Hanna Chester, his wife at the time, was also from Maryland. Chester would have been about thirty-seven years old by the time he registered his family with Chief Burgess Fahnestock. Significantly, Chester listed his occupation as the keeper of an “oyster shop.”22 George Chester’s oysters, and the restaurant in which he served these and other locally favored foods, would become quite popular and would soon play a prominent role in the development of abolitionist strategies by Harrisburg anti-slavery activists.

These early steps toward African American independence in Harrisburg were also important to the anti-slavery struggle in this town, which began to take the form of organized resistance fueled by the increased freedoms and resources. The progression from providing independent, impulsive aid to a fugitive slave, to organized resistance against the slave powers was a slow and painful process however, full of sacrifice and risk.

As noted earlier, the area around the ferry had been attracting runaway slaves since the middle of the previous century. Virginia slave Jerry Arthur escaped from his owners in December 1799 and, according to a published ad, was believed headed for Harrisburg. Whether he ever made it to the town is not known, but if he did, and if he managed to make contact with one of the town’s African American residents, it would have been a major undertaking for them to shelter and feed him at that time. Few had access to the necessary resources, being still dependant on white employers for their own food and shelter. Had they been caught in the act of aiding a fugitive slave at this time, they would have faced extremely harsh consequences, including possible imprisonment and loss of freedom. Yet fugitive slaves continued to come through Harrisburg and generally continued to escape detection, somehow surviving to continue on their journey. Their survival can only be explained by accepting that they found some sort of aid in town, whether it was temporary shelter, food, clothing or directions.

White residents of Harrisburg in 1800 and even in 1810 were not likely to have provided any of these necessary provisions, leaving the town’s black residents as the only likely providers. Ten years later, as the movement toward independent housing became more certain, the task of aiding fugitive slaves became easier, although no less risky.

Southern slaveholders were aware that their slaves were finding safe harbor in town, because they bought runaway advertisements in the local newspapers in hopes of alerting Harrisburg’s white citizenry to their possible presence. These runaway ads appeared frequently in such newspapers as the Harrisburg Republican, which even at this late date was running local advertisements from Harrisburg slaveholders offering slaves for sale. An ad appeared in that paper on 11 August 1820, offering to sell “the time of a black boy, nearly eight years old, bound to serve until he is twenty-one; his time will be sold cheap.” One month prior, on 7 July, the same newspaper ran copy that advertised “the time of a black Girl, who has about 5 years to serve.” Neither advertiser would include his or her name, leaving instructions for interested parties to “inquire of the printer.”

To local free African American residents, these advertisements, along with the runaway ads for Virginia and Maryland slaves, must have been highly frustrating and probably even frightening, being grim reminders of the perilous nature of their own freedoms. As more and more fugitive slaves made their way from southern plantations to the alleys of Harrisburg, and as the demands of southern slaveholders and politicians became shriller in their call for penalties and punishment, local blacks found that they had to make a choice in order to protect their families, their freedoms, and their futures. A haphazard approach to sheltering runaways was insufficient in the face of the increasing numbers of fugitives, and especially in the face of increasing incursions by slave hunters. The potential for violence was becoming manifest with each passing week. They could either endure the status quo of a European-American dominated society that accepted the servitude of blacks, and ally themselves with the majority of Harrisburg’s white citizenry against, or at least with indifference to, the influx of southern freedom seekers, or they could continue to resist the slave powers and thereby place all their hard won freedoms in certain peril. There was no middle ground.

By the second decade of the nineteenth century, for Harrisburg’s African American community, it all came down to a choice of submission or rebellion. But there really was no choice. Their response to this atmosphere of brutal racial oppression was one of active, but covert, organized resistance.

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Notes

16. In his study of free African Americans in the Chesapeake region before, during, and after the Revolutionary War, historian Philip D. Morgan pointed out the decreased opportunities for free blacks in Maryland in the post war years. Citing the mass manumission of slaves by slaveholders, who were switching from tobacco to grain production, Morgan notes, “Although the free black population of the Chesapeake expanded after the Revolution, its members did not grow apart from slaves…the relatively small size of Chesapeake towns limited the migratory possibilities of recently manumitted blacks. For the most part, then, Chesapeake free blacks remained in their old neighborhoods. They often worked alongside slaves, many of whom were being hired out, as tidewater planters responded to the new demands of grain cultivation. A hired salve embraced some of freedom’s attributes, if not its substance. In another way, therefore, the gap between free black and slave narrowed rather than widened.” Philip D. Morgan, Slave Counterpoint: Black Culture in the Eighteenth-century Chesapeake and Lowcountry (Chapel Hill: University of North Carolina Press, 1998), 490.

17. Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 1, 12:68.

18. Bureau of the Census, Third Census of the United States, 1810, Borough of Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania; Egle, Notes and Queries, 1st and 2nd ser., vol. 2, 72:392-393; 3rd ser., vol. 1, 45:367; Annual Volume 1897, 11:61.
This pioneering African American community in Harrisburg, which was intermixed with white families and businesses, was roughly centered in the block that is now the modern day business center known as Strawberry Square.

19. “Harrisburg Registry of Free African Americans, 1821,” Borough Docket, 7 May 1821, Archives of the City of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

20. Ibid.

21. Pennsylvania Gazette, 4 March 1762.
Paxton Street was one of the principal routes in and out of Harrisburg, and connected the river town, via Lancaster, to Philadelphia. Prior to the founding of Harrisburg, it was known as the Paxton Road or the Harris Ferry Road. Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 3, 173:40.

22. “Harrisburg Registry of Free African Americans, 1821.” Slave ownership data on James Alricks is from Ellis Franklin, History of that part of the Susquehanna and Juniata valleys, embraced in the counties of Mifflin, Juniata, Perry, Union and Snyder, in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania (Philadelphia: Everts, Peck and Richards, 1886), 678-679. Alricks’ arrival in Harrisburg is from Egle, Notes and Queries, 1st and 2nd ser., vol. 1, 45:318. Tax information for James McClintock is cited in Eggert, “Two Steps Forward,” 9, and Houts, “Black Harrisburg’s Resistance to Slavery,” 11.
Houts lists James McClintock’s property as “three houses, two half-lots and a stable.” One possibility regarding the place of origin for George Chester, based upon the location and approximate year of servitude to his former owner, is in Worcester County, Maryland, where Thomas Collins is listed in the county census as a slaveholder as late as 1810. If Chester was born in 1784 and manumitted at the traditional age of 28, he would have been free by 1812, which allows for his appearance in Harrisburg between the 1810 and 1820 censuses with a wife and seven-year-old child.


 

Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle

 

 

This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

Pick up your copies at the Mid-Town Scholar Bookstore, Civil War and More Books, the National Civil War Museum,
or at the 2010 Harrisburg History Center.

Both volumes also available on Amazon.

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