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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

 

Chapter Seven
Rebellion

Change—1830s and the Second Generation Entrepreneurs

For most African American residents of Harrisburg, the choice to actively resist the laws of the land by aiding fugitive slaves was probably not a formal decision, made after a careful weighing of all arguments, pro and con. Most were preoccupied, at least in the 1810s and 1820s, with the trials of daily life, which were all the more intense for Harrisburg’s laboring class. Making enough money to put food on the table and keep a roof overhead was a burden that weighed heavily on most independent African Americans living there.

At some point, however, many found the decision forced upon them by the sudden appearance of a cold, hungry, fugitive. The decision to provide a meal and a corner of a room was made not as a political statement, but out of simple human kindness. For others, it was an intensely personal decision to lend help if the fugitive was a relative, a friend, or even a person from their hometown. At other times, the fugitive might have been brought to their door by a neighbor, who did not feel secure keeping them in their own house, and it became a matter of helping a neighbor by taking in a sojourner.

For many then, it was not so much a conscious choice that was made as much as a mutual responsibility they assumed as a member of the community. In much the same way that neighbors and relatives minded each other’s children, they also appear to have pitched in when a stranger in need—a stranger with whom they empathized—appeared in their midst. This aid might range in degree from high involvement, of being the principle host that provided a meal, a bed, a change of clothes, or led the stranger out of town and guided them on the road to the next place of refuge, to the relatively uninvolved but important role of collaborator in keeping silent or professing ignorance when the authorities inevitably began nosing around.

The obituary of one very dynamic Harrisburg activist, Caroline Richards, wife of Junius Morel, attests to the strong commitment of one local African American family toward resistance: “In her devotions, the poor slave was always remembered with pious zeal, and as an earnest of her sincerity in the cause of humanity, her door was ever open to the unhappy fugitive from oppression. Food and raiment, with friendly counsel, and means to aid them in the pursuit of Liberty, was always cheerfully given.”23

The person who wrote Caroline Richards’ obituary probably did not realize that, by describing the aid she had tendered to the fugitive slaves who were brought to her Mulberry Street door, he was placing the operations of that entire neighborhood in jeopardy, should the obituary be read by a pro-slavery man. But the writer was more familiar with the slightly less secretive operations in Philadelphia, where he had first become acquainted with Richards, and where they had first begun ministering to the needs of freedom seekers before coming to Harrisburg. Perhaps he also trusted that the newspaper he used to trumpet her noble but highly illegal activities, the Colored American—an anti-slavery organ, was not likely to be read by any pro-slavery spies.

The appearance in Harrisburg of Caroline Richards and her erudite husband, Junius C. Morel, underscore the highly significant changes that were occurring in Harrisburg’s African American community after 1830. The most obvious change was the size of the community, which increased from one hundred and seventy-seven individuals, in 1820, to four hundred and ninety-three individuals, as measured in the 1830 census. The African American tenant houses and rented rooms were bursting with new arrivals as more and more people streamed into this river town. Making up this swelling influx of new citizens were several groups of people, the largest of which were free African Americans from the surrounding countryside.

By 1830, Harrisburg housed more than half of the entire African American population of Dauphin County, as more and more blacks migrated from township farms to Harrisburg’s cramped urban neighborhoods. Joining these county transplants were free African Americans from Maryland, Virginia, and Delaware, many of whom were fleeing to the interior of Pennsylvania to escape the stifling social structures that kept free African Americans in near slavery conditions in their home states. Mixing in with all these newcomers, and attempting to remain as unobtrusive and unnoticed as possible, were a number of self-liberated people, seeking the same fortune and opportunities as their free born and newly manumitted brethren.

Advertisements for fugitive slaves continued to appear in Harrisburg and other locally available newspapers during this time, seeking slaves from Maryland and Virginia. Catharine Bowie, of Prince George’s County, Maryland, was looking to recover slaves John, age twenty-nine, and Sam, age eighteen. Also in Prince George’s County, John Contee was seeking his frequent runaway, Isaac, whom he suspected was hiding “on the Frederick turnpike, with a view of getting to Pennsylvania.” R. Ward, of Fauquier County, Virginia, offered up to one hundred dollars for the capture of his slave Manuel, whom Ward thought might seek work as a stone mason, as he could “make a very good stone wall.” Elizabeth A. Sothoron and Susan A. Parnham, of St. Mary’s County, Maryland, were offering fifty dollars each for the return of thirty-five-year-old George Lee and twenty-one-year-old Matthew.

In Montgomery County, Henrietta O’Neale advertised that she would pay two hundred dollars for the return of Daniel Jackson and Peter Reader, two young men who had absconded from her farm near Poolsville, and James MacGill, of Prince George’s County, Maryland, offered four hundred and twenty dollars for his two male slaves Sam and Nick, and a woman named Kit. The trio had made their escape by taking one of MacGill’s horses, and were using forged “freedom papers” to make their way north. Advertisements for all the above fugitive slaves appeared in regional newspapers, with notices that some should be run in the Chambersburg Reporter, within a time span of about five weeks. In all cases, the owners thought the slaves were headed to Pennsylvania. It is likely that some of them mixed in with newly arriving rural Pennsylvania, Maryland or Virginia free African Americans, to seek their fortunes on Harrisburg’s streets.24

Most of these new additions to Harrisburg’s African American community were unskilled in marketable trades, tending to be recently manumitted farm hands from the rural counties of Virginia’s tidewater region, unemployed dockworkers from Baltimore’s waterfront, or house servants released from service to a financially strapped planter family and turned out into the world. Mixed in were the self-liberated slaves who, if they possessed valuable skills, were forced to keep a low profile lest they attract the attention of those in Harrisburg who regularly perused the runaway slave advertisements in the Washington and Philadelphia newspapers, and kept their eyes on every new black face that appeared in town, hoping to match a description and earn some bounty money for returning a fugitive slave.

Slave catchers from Maryland and Virginia frequented the streets of Harrisburg, and utilized local men to watch the alleys that snaked through the poorest neighborhoods. These slave-hunting teams kept their eyes on the houses that offered cheap lodging to new arrivals with scarce funds, and they staked out the markets, riverfront, and lumberyards, ever vigilant and ready to act on a tip, swoop in, and secure in jail any fugitive so unlucky as to be recognized. The unskilled and the hunted, therefore, constituted much of the increase in the black community, and the fear and uncertainty associated with these conditions only added to its social and economic burdens.

Though many more African Americans were acquiring independent housing and many were entering the ranks of property holders, these increases were offset by the relative quality of housing and property over which they gained control. While white property holders were erecting new hotels and stores between Front and Second streets and on a blossoming, centrally located Market Square, African American properties and houses, by comparison, were located on Strawberry Alley, Dewberry Alley, and at the eastern foot of Market Street. This neighborhood was, in this era prior to the coming of the canal and the railroad, the least desirable portion of town, located in a marshy lowland, hemmed in by meadows, Paxton Creek, and the steeply rising hills to the east. An old time resident of Harrisburg, in describing this area in the early 1830s, recalled, “Market Street east of Third Street was thinly built up, the houses being occupied by indifferent people, colored and white, with large vacant lots and gardens on the street.”25

Located in this neighborhood were the buildings of Ezekiel Carter, who by now had expanded his property holdings to include the entire northwest corner of Fourth and Market streets. These were not low, mean shacks, as implied by the statement above, but were substantial two-story buildings with fully excavated basements and stone foundations. Though looked upon with scorn by the rest of the borough, the houses of these “indifferent people” provided shelter, their gardens and the livestock raised in their vacant lots and backyard pens provided food, and their resourceful occupants found jobs for incoming free and fugitive people of color, thus enabling them to stop wandering, get established, and to resume dreaming of the future instead of fearing the present.

 

Matthias Dorsey Family

These new arrivals eagerly accepted the only work available to the unskilled and undocumented: they became laborers, cooks, maids, drivers, and waiters. The work was hard, the hours were very long, but they were overwhelmingly young, strong, and eager to start anew in a growing town. There were some among the new arrivals who looked for something beyond a life of backbreaking labor, and took for their inspiration the pioneering work of Harrisburg’s first generation of African American entrepreneurs. Making his appearance during this time was the barber Matthias Dorsey, who would shortly become the most popular barber among Harrisburg’s white elite, providing his services from a shop close to the county courthouse, at the corner of Court and Market streets.

Dorsey’s sons, Felix and Henry, followed their father in the family trade, and established a shop on the northeast corner of Market Square, at Strawberry Alley. The Dorsey’s barbershop was located directly across the alley from the Spread Eagle Inn, one of the town’s most important hotels, and the point of arrival and departure for the stagecoaches operated by William Calder. This advantageous location quickly made the barbershop of the Dorsey brothers a favorite among Harrisburg’s most influential male citizens, as well as among state senators and representatives in town during legislative sessions.

Matthias, an astute businessman, had established the strategy of locating his services convenient to the centers of power in Harrisburg, in order to appeal to the influential white clientele. He initially began operating close to the Dauphin County Courthouse, and attracted the patronage of such local lawyers as Charles Coatesworth Rawn, who recorded transactions with the barber as early as 1833.26 His sons followed this strategy by locating their business on the very fashionable public square, across a narrow alley from a hotel popular with visiting celebrities and politicians.

Matthias Dorsey had relocated his family from Baltimore to Harrisburg sometime in the late 1820s. Born about 1790, Dorsey became a free African American citizen of Baltimore, working as a barber on Howard Street in that town as early as 1816. He married a white woman named Cordelia and they had a daughter, Caroline, who was born in 1817. The family grew with the birth of several more children, including Felix, in 1821. Several years later, for reasons not known, Matthias Dorsey decided to move his family and business more than seventy-five miles north, to Harrisburg. It is likely that his move was planned with the advice or help of several relatives already located in the Harrisburg area. The Thomas Dorsey family had been in the vicinity for at least ten years prior to Matthias’ move, showing up in the census of Swatara Township in 1820 as one of ten free African American families living in that area just a few miles outside of the town of Harrisburg.

Thomas Dorsey had already made a name for himself in Harrisburg, in 1817, by serving as the secretary of the fund drive to establish and African Church. That same year he helped found a school for Harrisburg’s African American children. Although Thomas Dorsey no longer appeared as the head of a household anywhere in the 1830 census of Dauphin County, which was the same year that Matthias and his family were first enumerated in Harrisburg, another Dorsey family, John and his wife, were counted living close to the newly settled Matthias Dorsey family in town.27 From this start, the Dorsey family would play a major role in Harrisburg’s African American community for at least the next twenty years.

Joining the Dorsey family in the barbering business about this time was Caesar Nathan, the head of one of the town’s first independent African American families, being counted as a free householder as early as 1810. Nathan may have been offering his barbering services earlier, perhaps as early as James McClintock did in the 1820s. His business, however, did not achieve the notoriety or longevity enjoyed by that of the McClintock and Dorsey families.

Another small African American businessman of the 1830s was Perry Hooper, who offered competition to Ezekiel Carter in the water cart business. Hooper, his wife Hagar, and two young children were all born in Pennsylvania and came into Harrisburg from the surrounding townships, unlike many of his fellow businessmen, who were born in Maryland or Virginia.28

 

Edward Bennett and Judy's Town

Another Pennsylvania-born businessman who began offering services in Harrisburg in the 1830s was Edward Bennett, who began a chimney sweeping service in competition with Ezekiel Carter and John Battis. The growing town had plenty of chimneys to keep clean, in the years before coal became a common fuel in town, and Bennett’s business prospered despite his late arrival on the scene. Not only was Edward Bennett able to successfully market his services in a small town with two other chimney sweeping businesses, but he was also able to eclipse both Carter and Battis in the size of his operation, soon becoming the overseer of the town’s largest corps of young boys engaged as sweeps. Bennett took his operation beyond the town limits, and marketed his services to the residents living along the farm lanes and country roads that radiated out from Harrisburg.

Edward Bennett was a young man, clearly ambitious and smart, and he soon attracted the eye of Mary Ann Richards, the daughter of a local matriarch, Judy Richards. Edward and Mary Ann married, and the newlyweds settled in a house near the bride’s mother, near Third and Mulberry streets. This area had been developing slowly as a mixed race neighborhood, since before the 1820s, and its “proprietress,” or the person to whom local inhabitants went to get things done or to settle disputes, was Judy Richards. So important was Richards to the informal governance of this neighborhood that the area, squeezed into the southern edge of Harrisburg, became known as Judytown or Judy’s Town. It was from his home in Judy’s Town that Edward Bennett managed his expanding army of young African American chimneysweeps, who he dispatched on their rounds early every morning into the streets of Harrisburg and out into the townships.29

About the time that Edward Bennett settled into his home on Mulberry Street and began to establish his business as a local institution there, another important institution moved into that same neighborhood. To accommodate the spiritual well-being of the town’s African American citizens, an African Methodist Episcopal Society had been organized some years before, in 1817, when the population was already well over one hundred. Funds to establish an “African Church” were solicited then, mostly from white patrons, but the secretary in charge of the fund drive was Thomas Dorsey, of nearby Swatara Township. Because the drive was tightly controlled by local white leaders, the selection of Thomas Dorsey as an officer in the organization shows that considerable trust was already invested in this family by Harrisburg’s white leadership.

Dorsey did not stop after completing the fund drive for a new church building, though. That same year, working with the new A.M.E. society, he founded a school for all African American children in the borough, both enslaved and free. The social foundations provided by these starts, and with Dorsey’s leadership, helped the local A.M.E. society to prosper and gain membership, so that by 1830, with one hundred and fifteen members, Harrisburg constituted the largest stop on the African Methodist Episcopal Zion Church circuit through central Pennsylvania.

 

Wesley Union Church

It is not surprising, then, that the need to organize the Harrisburg community, which contained one seventh of the circuit membership, as a regular station, with a regularly assigned pastor, had already been recognized and acted upon. On 20 August 1829, the Wesley Union Church was organized in a small log building at the corner of Third and Mulberry streets, in the neighborhood known as Judy’s Town. The organizers were Elder Jacob D. Richardson, originally from York, Deacon David Stevens, and Brother Matthias Dorsey. At the A.M.E. conference in Philadelphia the following year, Reverend Stevens was ordained an elder and given charge of the Harrisburg Circuit, which included New Market (fifteen members), Chambersburg (seventy-two members), Shippensburg (seventeen members), York (forty members), Swatara/Middletown (forty members), and Harrisburg. Reverend Stevens was aided in this work by Deacon David H. Crosby, Deacon Samuel Johnson, and Preacher, later Superintendent, George Galbraith.30

The establishment of the first African American church in Judy’s Town firmly fixed that neighborhood as an important center of African American social and spiritual life in the borough. This, in turn, led more and more African Americans to settle nearby, as the old rooming houses on Strawberry Alley and Market Street were becoming overcrowded. In addition, the development of properties by white owners was beginning to creep east on Market, slowly squeezing out the black families who had been only renting their properties. Faced with having to relocate in town, many chose to move south to the Third and Mulberry neighborhood. Relocating to the new neighborhood, and lending their prestige, were the church officers and elders Stevens, Crosby, Johnson, and Galbraith.

The new church occupied a large role in the community, endorsed education, and took unwavering stands on moral issues. When Reverend Jacob D. Richardson assumed the pastorate from Reverend Stevens, he added a day school in the log church for the education of the children of the local African American community and became their teacher. The cost of maintaining this school was paid by the county, but in 1832, the county ceased payment of his salary and directed that the children should attend the Lancasterian School on Walnut Street. One of the children taught by Richardson and subsequently sent to the Lancasterian School was Joseph Popel, who became a respected community figure, and who was destined to become an inspiring leader in the community’s resistance to invading slave catchers.

Just prior to the blossoming of the Judy’s Town neighborhood, the business operation of a previously mentioned African American entrepreneur changed significantly with his remarriage. George Chester first appeared in Harrisburg about 1820, prepared and sold oysters for a living, and was living on Dewberry Alley with his wife Hannah and one child in 1821. Something happened to Hannah in the next few years, and by 1825, George Chester was single and searching for another wife.

 

Jane Morris Arrives

In that year, the same year that several Maryland men hauled an accused fugitive slave before the county magistrate in the courthouse on Market Street, a block-and-a-half away from Chester’s house, and caused the town’s first documented anti-slavery riot, another Maryland refugee had entered Harrisburg and was attempting to mix in with the local free African American community. Her name was Jane Morris, and she was barely nineteen years old when she arrived, alone and probably frightened and intimidated, in town.

However, she did not lack courage and pluck, having run away from her Baltimore owner, a financier and land speculator named Dennis A. Smith, to whom she had been sold until she reached the age of thirty, by her previous owner, Judge George Gould Presbury, a noted jurist of Baltimore County. Faced with another eleven years of slavery, Jane headed north, following the turnpikes and waterways that had led so many freedom seekers along the same route to Harrisburg. Like these new arrivals, Jane sought the anonymity of a quiet position, and took work as a maid in the household of merchant Alexander Graydon.

Jane quickly endeared herself to Mr. Graydon and all the members of his family, including his sister Rachel, who at the time was still involved with the Sabbath School that she had helped organize in 1816. Rachel was recently married to Harrisburg lawyer Mordecai McKinney, and Jane went from working in the Graydon household to working in the new McKinney household, to help the couple manage their home. It was about this time that Jane, in her errands around town, met the oysterman George Chester. Chester was attracted to the young woman and a relationship developed.

In April 1826, they married, and Jane moved into her own household with her new husband. At some point, the family built a house on the south side of Market Street, between Dewberry Alley and Fourth Street. At about the same time, George Chester established a firm address for his victual business, beginning a restaurant, or oyster cellar, on Market Street next to the courthouse, and his entire family took an active part in its operation and management. Like Matthias Dorsey, George Chester also saw the commercial possibilities of positioning his restaurant in proximity to hungry barristers, bailiffs, and everyone who had business in the courthouse.

 

Chester's Oyster Cellar

According to a description of the business and property published in William Henry Egle’s Notes and Queries, the Chester’s oyster house was located in a “long frame building which flanked the county property [the court house] on the east.” The top floor of this building was used by printer and publisher George Bergner, and “several attorneys-at-law occupied rooms on the first floor.” Chester’s “famous oyster cellar” was in the basement and was reached by an outside entrance “around the corner” from the courthouse.31 Attorney Charles C. Rawn, in his journals, noted on 13 December 1833 that he “paid for oysters at Cellar by my office 6 ¼ cents,” a likely reference to Chester’s business.32

This second generation of African American entrepreneurs inherited a somewhat more hospitable situation in which to begin their operations, thanks to the pioneering work of men like Ezekiel Carter and John Battis, but the new entrepreneurs did not rest or dwell solely on their business accomplishments. Instead, they took advantage of their positions as up-and-coming community leaders and charged head first into the work of improving the moral, religious, economic, and most importantly the political situations of Harrisburg’s rapidly growing African American community.

Matthias Dorsey, as noted earlier, was one of the founding members of Wesley Union Church, which was constructed at Third and Mulberry Streets in 1829, filling a huge void in the spiritual life of the borough’s African American residents. It is significant that the church, which was built with some of the funds raised more than ten years earlier for establishment of an “African Church,” did not include the appellation “African” in its title. Many black community leaders, who for several generations had been born on American soil, understood the need to establish an identity apart from their African roots if they were to escape the limitations of an imposed identity that, in European American minds, was still tied heavily to slavery. They began the process of creating a new American identity with their church, and soon extended it to other social institutions.

A few years later, the old guard of Harrisburg’s African American community began to lose its influence, with the death of Ezekiel Carter in May 1834. The former wood sawyer’s estate, at his death, was significant, and included property holdings that encompassed the entire northwest corner of Fourth and Market streets, and which firmly anchored the eastern end of the African American community that centered on Strawberry Alley, between Market and Walnut streets. The property passed to his heirs, but they were not able to hold on to this important piece of real estate for long.

One Sunday evening in October 1838, a fire started in the carpenter shops of the Samuel Holman and John B. Simon lumberyard, which was located across Fourth Street from Ezekiel Carter’s houses. A fire had struck this location the previous year, but the prompt response of the borough’s citizenry, with their leather buckets, prevented it from spreading across the street to the Carter family houses. Because most structures in the town were of wood construction, and the response of the volunteers was limited to a bucket brigade in the years before Harrisburg had a water system with water plugs for fire fighting, the strategy of those who responded to fires was to try to save neighboring buildings from the spreading flames.

Unfortunately, a strong October wind this evening defied all attempts at preventing the burning cinders from being taken up and blown across narrow Fourth Street onto the wood shingle roofs of the boarding houses, and the flames soon spread to the west side of the street. Once the houses in Ezekiel Carter’s row caught fire, any attempt at containing the fire by the small body of citizen fire fighters proved to be futile, and the entire corner was soon engulfed in an inferno that forever changed the geography of Harrisburg’s African American community.

A historian later wrote, in a much disparaging tone, that the corner was “cleared of the celebrated Zeke Carter and his tribe, by a conflagration said to be fortunate.”33 That term, however, could only be used to describe the designs of those who later purchased the fire-leveled property, which bore only “the old cellars with the foundation walls” as evidence that a thriving African American block once existed there. For the survivors of Ezekiel Carter, and for the many African Americans of meager means who had been sheltered in his rooms and houses, the fire was anything but fortunate. No fire insurance covered the losses, and many families were ruined. The disaster broke the back of the African American community in that block, which was already feeling the pinch of encroaching development from the direction of Market Square, and nearly all were forced to relocate once again.

This time, however, there were two neighborhoods that stood ready to welcome them: the well-established and relatively settled Judy’s Town, situated around Third and Mulberry streets, and the recently established but rapidly growing development that sprang up in the triangle just east of the new state Capitol building between extensions of Walnut and South streets. African Americans had been living in this area since before 1825,34 but it was not until the mid-1830s that the area began to take on aspects of a regular neighborhood.

 

Flourish

It was into this furious mix of changing neighborhoods, frightening slave hunts and mounting racial tensions that Junius Morel and his wife Caroline Richards moved, from Philadelphia, in the summer of 1835. Morel was a man already highly esteemed in Philadelphia’s free African American community, and a voice of unwavering strength and resolution in defense of African American rights. He was one of the organizers of the nations’ first convention of African Americans, held at Mother Bethel church in Philadelphia, in September 1830, to address the questions of how to respond to the plight of African Americans in Ohio, who were being forced out of that state by the reinstatement of black Codes. Because resettlement in the British province of Upper Canada was a possible solution for the Ohioans, the entire issue of emigration to escape forced colonization was to be addressed by the delegates.

Morel, a former slave from North Carolina, was a dedicated proponent of emigration to Canada in situations where African American rights were trampled upon and they were systemically persecuted by the state. He worked at organizing the convention with Bishop Richard Allen, co-founder, along with Absalom Jones, of the Free African Society of Philadelphia, the nations’ first African American mutual aid society, and founder of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, in that city. Others involved with setting up this landmark convention in 1830 were Benjamin Paschall, Jr., Cyrus Black, and James Cornish.

Bishop Allen controlled the first convention, and directed the agenda, but he did not live to see the next annual convention, which was also held in Philadelphia. In his absence, the Philadelphia delegates scrambled for control of the conventions, with competing views on how best to oppose the building impetus of the colonization movement. The conventions eventually evolved into calls for African American moral reform, to center on “education, temperance and economy” as the means by which free African Americans would convince white Americans that they were morally fit to remain in the United States, rather than face forced emigration to Liberia.

Although Junius Morel continued to espouse support for the Canadian emigrants, he did so because he saw in the Canadian settlements the chance for blacks to own land and shape their own destinies. To that end, he differed with those who supported moral improvement by free blacks as the sole means of controlling their futures. Both of these strategies stood in unanimous opposition to the aims of the American Colonization Society, which sought to remove free African Americans from the United States and re-settle them in its colony in Liberia. By 1835 the moral reformers, sparked by groundwork laid the year before by Carlisle delegate John Peck, had gained the upper hand in the convention movement, and Junius Morel signaled his dissatisfaction with their aims by relocating to Harrisburg, from where he continued to put forth his ideas through letters published in the abolitionist newspaper the Colored American.35

Junius Morel’s reasons for relocating to Harrisburg are not definitely known. He wrote in 1838 of his earlier efforts, while in Philadelphia, to guarantee the right of suffrage for African Americans through a strong political campaign, “But a vain temerity on the part of some, and a suicidal apathy on the part of others, prostrated my designs at that period.”36 It is entirely possible that, knowing that the issue of African American voting rights was likely to be debated in the next state constitutional convention, Morel decided to move closer to the state capital, in order to better agitate on behalf of retaining the franchise.

 

Junius Morel's "New Experiment" in Harrisburg

The question of whether Pennsylvania should hold a convention to propose amendments to the state constitution was on the November 1835 ballot, the same year that Morel moved to Harrisburg. Proposed changes were advocated by the reformers in Pennsylvania state politics who gained power when Andrew Jackson won the state ten years earlier, and who were openly hostile toward abolition and African American rights. In that regard, it is probable that Morel, seeing the political climate in Pennsylvania swinging decidedly away from a continuing progression of African American rights, and feeling burned by earlier experiences in Philadelphia, decided to “go for the new experiment,” in Harrisburg.

Regardless of the reason, Junius Morel’s appearance in Harrisburg coincided with, and doubtless gave a decided momentum to the anti-slavery activities that were simmering in the Harrisburg area. Certainly, those activities involved aiding fugitive slaves, as noted above, but another important component involved organized political activity to support the rights of African Americans. One issue of immediate concern, and one that had been occupying the minds of Harrisburg’s African American residents for several years before the Morels arrived in town, was the issue of African Colonization.

The colonization issue was, ostensibly, a philanthropic endeavor to resettle free African American volunteers in colonies on the western coast of Africa. Supporters of the idea reasoned that free African Americans, who faced significant social, economic, and legal discrimination, could not successfully take part in American society as equals and would therefore soon slip into poverty and dependence. Disease and misery, not to mention crime and racial strife, were the bitter fruits of such a situation, it was argued. A petition to the United States Congress by some citizens of Dauphin County in support of colonization summed up the arguments by portraying African Americans as totally dependent, incapable beings:

The removal of the free negroes in this country from among the white population is a matter in which the citizens in every state in the Union must feel a deep solicitude, as it is one on which the safety, harmony and good order of society materially depend. Occupying a subordinate station, destitute of the means, motives, and energy of character essential to an improvement of their condition, they are now, and must continue to be, for generations to come, with few exceptions, the most worthless and degraded portions of society. The calendars of our jails and penitentiaries, and the records of our poor houses, bear ample testimony of this truth. The relative proportion of negro criminals and paupers in every state of the Union, on a comparison of the numbers of the black and white population, is a melancholy but instructive commentary on their condition. We need say nothing further than merely to advert to this fact for the purpose of showing the extent and magnitude of the evil which we call on you to redress.

Their removal from white society to lands in Africa, according to the petitioners, was not only a measure of justice due to African Americans, but would be the fulfillment of a “duty which we owe to the degraded and friendless free blacks of this country, to restore them to the land of their fathers, where they may enjoy unmolested, that equality of rights and dignity of character which they appeal to our declaration of independence, as proving to be their natural inheritance.”37

These ideas were abhorrent to free African Americans in Harrisburg who, though they continued to struggle to overcome the racial and economic barriers that were the legacy of slavery, were finally seeing significant independence and growth in their community. Despite the inevitable setbacks, they had progressed from an isolated and fractured population that was totally dependent upon white benefactors, to a vibrant and relatively cohesive community that was economically, spiritually, and socially independent, in less than three decades. The supposition that their condition could only be improved by relocating to a foreign land an ocean away was not only nonsense, it was insulting. It completely ignored their contributions to the development and building of Harrisburg, their willingness to defend it from hostile forces, and their relative success in forming their own institutions of prayer, commerce, moral improvement, and education. It was only natural that Harrisburg’s blacks would fight the social and political movement to ship them to Africa, particularly as it was masquerading as a humanitarian venture.

The philanthropic angle was the most insidious part of the plan, and it initially succeeded in drawing in many local whites who would otherwise not have endorsed such a racist movement. The impetus for removal of free African Americans from white society was fueled by the effects of the gradual emancipation laws, and by an influx of southern fugitives fleeing slavery, or southern free blacks forced out by repressive laws designed to limit their freedom.

Equally large increases occurred in the populations of free blacks in the Southern states, with the largest concentrations in Southern cities and in the tidewater areas of Virginia and Maryland. Whites in these areas viewed the growing free African American populations with alarm. Various methods of control were discussed, but the most enduring solution was the removal of free blacks from the United States, to "colonies," in Africa and later Haiti.

This process was embodied in the mission of the American Colonization Society, established in 1816. The ACS acquired territory on the western coast of Africa in 1821 and named the new land "Liberia.” Harrisburg residents organized an auxiliary branch of the Pennsylvania Colonization Society in 1819, but the national organization foundered in the next few decades. In its place rose two state societies: the Colonization Society of the City of New York and the Young Men's Colonization Society of Pennsylvania. The two organizations joined forces in 1834 and became a powerful force in the colonization movement.

In October 1834, the United Colonization Societies of New York and Pennsylvania sent settlers to a new colony on the western coast of Africa they named "Bassa Cove."38 Many of Harrisburg’s white residents contributed money and political support to the cause, including several petitions to lawmakers in the mid-1830s.39 Harrisburg supporters of colonization included attorneys Charles C. Rawn, Ovid Johnson, George W. Harris, Alexander Mahon, and Judge Calvin Blythe. Many of these persons, such as Alexander Mahon, a former speaker of the state senate and state treasurer, held strong political connections.

In the coming decades, several local whites who initially supported colonization would come to change their minds about the legitimacy of the movement, the most notable being attorney Charles C. Rawn, who would come to play an important role in Harrisburg’s anti-slavery activities. But during the 1830s, colonization presented a real and immediate threat to the future of Harrisburg’s African American citizens.

Their response was immediate and strong. In September 1831, they gathered in the only building that had always offered them a forum for their views, the humble log building at Third and Mulberry streets that was the African Wesleyan Methodist Church. There, the Reverent Jacob D. Richardson, who had just recently taken over from the founding minister, David Stevens, led the congregation in prayer and song, then convened a meeting of local citizens to formulate their response, as a united community, to the agitations of local colonization supporters.

Reverend Richardson, who was also the schoolmaster for the borough’s African American children, was appointed chairman, and the well-respected Jacob G. Williams was appointed secretary. Richardson and Williams led the assembled citizens to hammer out a series of resolutions that were to be submitted to William Lloyd Garrison’s newspaper, the Liberator, to express to the world the sentiments of Harrisburg’s African American citizenry about African colonization. The Harrisburg resolutions opened with the Declaration of Independence, invoking the immortal words of Thomas Jefferson, whose message of universal equality rang so true to them during these times, which they praised by stating, “This is the language of America, of reason, and of eternal truth.”

They called out the supporters of colonization on their “chimerical scheme for our transportation to the burning shores of Africa” by flatly rejecting their cultural connection to that colony as “land which we can no more lay claim to than our white brethren can to England or any other foreign country.” The real objective, they stated, was grounded in a desire to preserve the status quo of slavery, “hence their object to drain the country of the most enlightened part of our colored brethren, so that they may be more able to hold their slaves in bondage and ignorance.” To that end, the assembly reserved its harshest words for the leaders of the colonization movement, who attempted to spread the popularity of the scheme by raising the specter of African American violence by citing “the bloody tragedy of Southampton,” as “vicious, nefarious and peace-disturbing.”40

To further support the efforts of allies, the meeting added a resolution to “appoint Mr. George Chester, of Harrisburg, as agent for The Liberator, and will use our utmost endeavors to get subscribers for the same.” This resolution recognized not only the Liberator and Benjamin Lundy’s Genius of Universal Emancipation as valuable resources for the furtherance of their work, but it also formally recognized the work of oysterman George Chester in organizing and providing a public place where those opposed to colonization could gather and discuss the latest developments.

Chester’s oyster cellar was patronized by whites and blacks, and the availability at his restaurant of such a volatile publication as the Liberator shows the tolerance, if not endorsement, by many of his patrons for the anti-colonization issue. A central issue in the colonization question was the “agitations” of abolitionists, particularly in the north, and if supporters of African colonization were not whole-heartedly pro-slavery, they were certainly not supporters of immediate abolition, or “immediateism,” which by this time had become the mantra of the anti-colonizationists. So Chester’s’ oyster cellar gained a reputation as an anti-slavery establishment, and even though it was patronized by those who supported colonization, such as attorney Rawn, it began more and more to draw those of an opposing view, who gathered in its private curtained booths at the rear to discuss news of the day and to plan strategy.

By the time that Junius Morel brought his "new experiment" to Harrisburg, the anti-slavery sentiment had been simmering for a few years, but had not yet taken on a public persona. Activities were confined to highly secretive and risky behavior, such as the aiding of fugitive slaves, and private discussions among the town’s few abolitionists. Social acceptance of abolition among the white population was non-existent, and those whites who advocated for the slave found little sympathy among their neighbors. One important exception was the Rutherford family, whose estates spread across many acres of rich farmland in the outlying townships. They enjoyed a prominent and respected position in county society, having established the family homestead in 1755, supporting the cause of revolution, and providing much of the monetary and spiritual support to the influential Paxton Presbyterian Church.

When family patriarch William Rutherford, Sr. began sheltering fugitive slaves who showed up at his Swatara Township farm, possibly as early as 1820, he was able to deflect the disapproval of his neighbors by virtue of his already well-established reputation for moral and religious vigor. His father had been a local hero of the Revolution, and William Rutherford himself served in the military during the War of 1812, ultimately attaining the rank of colonel. He entered politics and served terms as a state representative from 1810 to 1821, and from 1829-1831. Historian William Henry Egle portrayed him as “one of the most influential men of his day in the county of Dauphin.”

William educated his children well, and they entered the legal, medical, printing, and political professions, all while maintaining substantial and successful farms to the east of Harrisburg. All of William Rutherford’s children seem to have embraced anti-slavery to some extent. Many of them offered shelter and aid to fugitive slaves on their farms, which extended from a few miles outside of Harrisburg along the newly laid turnpike road, to the heights of Chambers Hill. Those farms formed the early nucleus of Harrisburg’s rural Underground Railroad route, which, in 1830, was still largely undeveloped and very haphazard in its operation. That early operation, like Harrisburg’s organized anti-slavery activities, was about to undergo a dramatic change.

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Notes

23. “Obituary,” Colored American, 22 September 1838.

24. Eggert, “Two Steps Forward,” 3; National Intelligencer, 5, 26 January, 11 February 1832.

25. “Early Reminiscences” in Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 1, 34:227. Unfortunately, editor William Henry Egle does not identify the author of the article, allowing him the pen name of “Ye Olden Time.”

26. Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1899, 8:36. Harrisburg lawyer Charles C. Rawn noted in his journal, on 27 April 1833, that he paid Matthias Dorsey twenty-five cents to have Dorsey’s son Henry come to his office to shave him and cut his hair. A few months later, on 3 July, Rawn noted that he paid Matthias Dorsey six-and-a-quarter cents for an early morning shave. “The Rawn Journals, 1830-1865,” Michael Barton, ed., The Historical Society of Dauphin County, http://www.rawnjournals.com/ (accessed 14 February 2009).

27. “Blacks Residing in Baltimore,” Transcriptions of African American householders listed in Baltimore City Directories, 1819 – 1836, Louis S. Diggs, Sr., Afrigeneas.com, http://www.afrigeneas.com/library/baltimore/index.html (accessed 14 February 2009); Bureau of the Census, Population Schedules of the Fourth Census of the United States:1820, roll 102, Pennsylvania; vol. 7, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County; Fifth Census of the United States: 1830, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County, Harrisburg, Microfilm, Pennsylvania State Archives.

28. George B. Ayers, “Topics for the Historians,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, 3rd ser., vol. 2, 130:287; Bureau of the Census, Census records, 1810-1850, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County.
Ceasar Nathan is also listed as Cato Nathan and Ceasar Nathans, in various census records.

29. Judy Richards is identified in an article published in Egle’s Notes and Queries, “Olden Times in Harrisburg” (3rd ser., vol. 1, 12:68) as Judy Rikard. She appears in the 1830 census of Harrisburg, enumerated next to her son-in-law Edward Bennett, as Juda Richards, with one other African American woman in residence. Prior to that, in 1820, there is a listing for a free African American household in Harrisburg containing two African American women, headed by Maria Rickets. Even earlier, in 1816, Judith Richard appears on the roster of the first class of female African American students educated at the Sabbath School organized by the Presbyterian Church. Another student, Jemima Ricketts, is listed on the second class list. Based upon the similarity of spelling, and comparison of ages, it seems likely this is the same household, and that Maria Rickets is Mary Ann Richards. Bureau of the Census, Census records, 1820-1850, Pennsylvania, Dauphin County; Stewart, Centennial Memorial, 224-227.

30. Eggert, “Two Steps Forward,” 223; Michael Barton and Jessica Dorman, Harrisburg's Old Eight Ward (Charleston, SC: Arcadia, 2002), 36-39; Kelker, History of Dauphin County, 284; Scott and Smith, African Americans of Harrisburg, 31, 33-35.

31. Jane Chester’s maiden and/or middle name is variously given, depending upon the source, as Jane Morris, Jane Marie, and Jane Mars. Morris seems to be the name most commonly accepted. The location of George Chester’s residence on Market Street is given in the obituary of Jane Chester as “site of the present Hershey House.” That location is 327 Market Street. In an advertisement placed by the Chester’s for their restaurant in the 1856 Harrisburg city directory, it was identified as the Washington Restaurant, but it does not appear to have been commonly known by that name. Obituary of “Mrs. Jane Chester,” Daily Telegraph, 19 March 1894, in Egle, Notes and Queries, 4th ser., vol. 2, 104:18; Theodore B. Klein, “Some Memories of East Market Street When I Was a Boy,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1900, 4:21; Theodore B. Klein, “Old Time Reminiscences,” in Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1899, 37:184.

32. Rawn also frequently patronized an oyster restaurant run by someone named Davis, and in the 1840s, he went to another African American-owned oyster cellar run by the Greenley family, but none of these appear to be the one located next to the courthouse. In other entries (24 March 1832, 19 May 1832, 13 December 1832, 26 and 29 March 1834, 7 April 1838) he makes reference to George Chester’s establishment by name and on 15 February 1833 he noted that he paid sixteen cents at “Chester’s Cellar.” “Rawn Journals” (accessed 17 February 2009).

33. Egle, Notes and Queries, Annual Volume 1900, 4:20. Abolitionist Martin R. Delany spent time as a young man in Harrisburg in the late 1820s and remembered Ezekiel Carter’s properties on Market Street, as well as George Chester’s house on Market Street, just east of Dewberry Alley. When he made a return visit in November 1848, he was saddened to note that George Chester had just lost his Market Street home. He commented, “There are several owners of real estate in Harrisburg; yet the real wealth among them, especially the old residents, is fast changing hands, passing into those of the whites, upon which they are growing wealthy, with fortunes to leave for their children.” Regarding the Ezekiel Carter block, he wrote, “The estate of the late Ezekiel Carter, on the same street, and nearly opposite [to George Chester’s house], has been wrested from the heirs, by a similar process, as I am informed; and now there is a row, consisting of seven or eight of the finest pressed-brick dwellings in the capital, upon the spot; in one of which houses resides one of the most distinguished statesmen in the commonwealth.” Delany refers to the homes of Thomas J. Rehrer, William Berryhill, ex-Governor David R. Porter, and William D. Boas. M. R. Delany to Frederick Douglass, 18 November 1848, published in North Star, 1 December 1848.

34. William Henry Egle wrote that there was “historical evidence of a large colored element in this section” in 1825, citing a newspaper report of a “tumultuous crowd” of African American men and boys who responded to the rescue attempt at the courthouse in April of that year. They reportedly came “from Tanner, Short and adjacent streets.” Barton and Dorman, Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward, 59.

35. Julie Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite: Activism, Accommodation, and the Struggle for Autonomy, 1787-1848 (Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1988), 91-107.

36. Junius C. Morel to “Esteemed Friend,” Colored American, 3 May 1838.

37. “Memorial to Congress on the Subject of Colonization,” Harrisburg Keystone, 25 January 1837.

38. Eli Seifman, “The United Colonization Societies of New-York and Pennsylvania and the Establishment of the African Colony of Bassa Cove,” Pennsylvania History 35, no. 1 (January 1968): 23-25.

39. In addition to the 1837 “Memorial to Congress,” noted above, Harrisburg residents in February 1836 submitted to the 24th Congress the nearly identically worded document: "Petition of citizens of Dauphin county, Pennsylvania, for appropriation to remove to Africa all free negroes and manumitted slaves.” The petition originated from “a large and respectable meeting of the citizens of Dauphin county, convened in the borough of Harrisburg, of the 28th day of August,” in 1835. It was presented in the U.S. Senate by the newly elected Democratic Senator James Buchanan. Records of the 24th Congress, LexisNexis Index of Congressional Documents, Historical Indexes, http://www.lexisnexis.com/; Liberator, 20 February 1836.

40. “A Voice from Harrisburg,” Liberator, 8 October 1831. Similar meetings were held in numerous central Pennsylvania towns by concerned African American citizens. Under the headline “A Voice From York (PA),” the Liberator’s 8 June 1833 issue printed the proceedings of a “a large and respectable meeting of the colored Inhabitants of the Borough of York, held at their church,” on 7 March 1833 in opposition to the aims of the American Colonization Society. Resolutions were drafted by the York residents that were very similar to those drafted by Harrisburg’s residents. The York meeting also appointed at least one delegate to attend the 1833 convention to be held in June of that year, in Philadelphia.


 

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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