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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 Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)

 

This Nation Will Yet Weep

Steady employment was one of the most valuable possessions a resettled fugitive slave could own. While many fugitive slaves were given shelter, food, medical care, and clothing by Underground Railroad activists on their way to freedom, such aid was not always available in every town or at every stop. The successful escapee had to be prepared to barter his or her labor on occasion, to avoid hunger and exposure when stranded far from safe harbor. Fortunately, farmers, merchants, and tradesmen along Pennsylvania’s back roads and in small towns were used to seeing people pass through, and could often be persuaded to trade some food or a space in the barn for an afternoon spent chopping firewood or cleaning a stable. Performing odd jobs for a meal, for a bed for the night, or even to gain a few extra cents in the pocket, helped many freedom seekers to survive their journey out of bondage.

Of course, such negotiations had to be approached and undertaken with extreme care on the part of the fugitive, as many local people were just as likely to summon a local sheriff or even a slave catcher in hopes of collecting a reward, if they suspected the traveler was a slave. Occasionally a fugitive slave would deem his or her temporary employer trustworthy enough that a longer stay ensued, sometimes extending to weeks or months, during which time the fugitive could rest, gather supplies for the next segment of the journey, and gain valuable information about the surrounding countryside and its inhabitants. Eventually, though, most fugitive slaves moved on, traveling until they found a place that they felt secure enough to put down new roots. Once a decision had been made to stop running, a steady job became a necessity.

In Harrisburg, African American community leaders such as businessman Edward Bennett and ministers George Galbraith and David Stevens helped newly arrived fugitives—those who expressed a desire to stay in Harrisburg, anyway—find regular work. The benefits of a regular job were numerous: it provided income to reduce or eliminate the dependence of resettled fugitives on support from the local African American community, it provided cover and legitimacy, it gave the refugee a renewed sense of worth, it integrated the new arrival into the community, and it established a valuable network of contacts to co-workers and an employer. All these benefits would prove to pay big returns to fugitive slave James Phillips, who arrived in Harrisburg from Virginia about 1837 and decided to make the river town his new home.

Phillips was born into slavery about 1820 in Culpeper County, Virginia, where he was owned originally by farmer Dennis Hudson, who gave him to his son William Hudson. The younger Hudson, in 1833, sold his teenaged slave to Henry T. Fant, of Warrenton, in neighboring Fauquier County. Jim, as he was called, was not happy with his new owner, and in that same year, in the autumn, he ran off. Jim headed north, probably following the old Carolina Road, which approximates the route of modern Route 15, to Frederick and on into Gettysburg. He eventually found his way to Harrisburg, arriving in town about the year 1837, at seventeen years of age.80

It was a heady and fortunate time for a young, ambitious African American man to come to Harrisburg. Junius Morel was busily engaged with Reverend Jacob Richardson in organizing local resistance to the slave powers, the published poems of Phillis Wheatley could be purchased at Alexander Graydon’s store in the 200 block of Market Street, a local anti-slavery society had been organized in town the year before, and a state anti-slavery convention had been held in Shakespeare Hall, on Locust Street, in January.

Economically, the town was prospering from construction of the State Works, which included canal and railroad lines expanding into the state capital. It was in 1836 that the first railroad cars were pulled into Harrisburg by a steam locomotive, and in 1837 the railroad bridge connecting the town to the Cumberland Valley Railroad opened. Even the appearance of a periodic economic panic did not seriously disrupt business as usual in the capital,81 and teenaged Jim Phillips was able to find plenty of work. He quickly established himself within the vigorous local African American community.

Although James Phillips’ early work history is not known, he eventually began to drive a team and haul goods for a local businessman who, coincidentally, had come to Harrisburg in the same year that he had arrived. John H. Brant began with a small grocery business in town and then broke into the wholesaling business, selling everything from grain and foodstuffs, to plaster and coal. He first used the Pennsylvania Canal to ship his goods to market, and later began shipping on the railroad lines that were rapidly spreading across the Pennsylvania countryside.

As a “forwarding agent,” Brant’s income depended upon rapidly transporting large amounts of bulk goods, and sometimes highly perishable goods, between local producers, canal wharves, railroad freight terminals, and retail merchants. One of the persons Brant depended upon to haul those goods back and forth was his trusted teamster, James Phillips. In this capacity, James Phillips became well known to the freight workers and the foremen who manned the loading docks at the canal and the railroad station. He also became a familiar face to most of the town’s merchants, many of whom bought their wares through John H. Brant and received their deliveries from the back of Phillips’ wagon.82

Over the years, many of Harrisburg’s residents came to know James Phillips as Brant’s hardworking deliveryman and few if any suspected that he was a runaway slave that, fifteen years after his escape, still had a price on his head. Even Phillips himself may have believed he was finally free of the grasp of his former owner. He married a local woman, Mary Ann, in the mid-1840s and by the time of the passage of the Fugitive Slave Act in 1850, had a three-year-old daughter and a two-year-old son.

Passage of the act may have given Phillips reason to pause, as he considered the danger to his young family, but he apparently felt safe enough in Harrisburg that he chose not to uproot his young family and move farther north, as many of his neighbors had done. After all, he and his wife were well thought of by the influential residents of the town: he was described by the Harrisburg Telegraph as “one of the most reliable fellows to be found,” and his wife was characterized as a “respectable, industrious colored woman.” Perhaps, even in the face of Richard McAllister’s outrageous tactics, James Phillips felt the best way to avoid trouble was to keep his head down and keep to his work. For nearly twenty-one months, that strategy worked; no one bothered him.

Perhaps Phillips felt a tightening in his gut, in the afternoon of 24 May 1852, when a group of local men headed by Constable Henry Loyer approached him as he worked on Front Street at the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge. Loyer left the group and walked up to Phillips, as if he wanted to talk with him. This was, after all, one of the men who had been working with McAllister’s notorious posse of slave catchers, but Phillips had known the constable for years and had never had any trouble with him.

Loyer approached the hardworking teamster with an attitude of friendship, extending his hand as if to offer a handshake in greeting, so Phillips stopped his work and reached out to return the offer. Instead of shaking his hand, though, Officer Loyer grabbed Phillips and roughly threw or knocked him to the ground, temporarily stunning him. Before he could regain his senses and grasp what was happening, the other men that had come up with Loyer ran to the prone man and immobilized him while Loyer declared him his prisoner. They hustled him off to the county prison, and at four o’clock took him across the street to Commissioner McAllister’s office.

In the short time between his capture and the hearing, word had spread through the borough and friends and family had mobilized to aid in his defense. Waiting in Commissioner McAllister’s office, when James Phillips was brought in, was attorney Mordecai McKinney, to argue in his defense. Probably even more welcome to Phillips was the sight of his wife, Mary Ann, who took her place by his side as soon as he entered the building.

Richard McAllister asked Phillips if he was ready to be tried as a runaway slave. James Phillips indicated that he was. McAllister then introduced Augustine G. Hudson and James H. Vowles, residents of Virginia, whom he said represented Phillips’ alleged owner, Henry T. Fant. Both men testified that, although they were children when Phillips had run away, they recognized him on the streets of Harrisburg, despite the passage of fifteen or more years, due to his strong resemblance to other slaves on the Hudson plantation. Their testimony was long and detailed, and went on for hours. By the time they finished speaking, the sun had long since set below the western horizon.

Attorney McKinney rose and attacked the Virginians’ testimony with all of his legal wiles, but he was not arguing before an impartial judge and jury. McAllister soon tired of the procedures—the hearing had been going on for three hours by that time—and cut him off. At some point McKinney indicated that he needed assistance, and three African American men from the crowd were sent to the Second Street home of Charles Rawn to appeal for his help.

Rawn was entertaining visitors in his home, which sat on the southeast corner of Market Square. Just after seven p.m., the visit was interrupted when Samuel Mars, John Price, and Jefferson Graham urgently knocked on his door and insisted that he go with them to McAllister’s office. The veteran attorney made his excuses to his guests and followed the men to the Slave Commissioner’s office, which by now was surrounded by a large, noisy throng of people. With the assistance of Price, Mars, and Graham, he made his way through the “great crowd,” and went inside to consult with McKinney.

 

Shock and Anger

Rawn did what he could at the last minute, but by now, McAllister was ready to end the hearing. He pulled from his desk the necessary legal documents to remand James Phillips back to Virginia. Both lawyers noted with alarm and anger that the forms were already fully filled out. They objected strenuously that the entire hearing had been a sham, but McAllister brushed their concerns aside with the flimsy explanation that he had already considered Phillips guilty of being a runaway slave based upon prima facie evidence, and besides, if he waited until the conclusion of each hearing, the paperwork would take him all night to fill out. The Virginians then bound James Phillips with chains and fetters, pulled him away from his wife, and, with some of McAllister’s deputies for protection, took him out of the office into Walnut Street.

Mary Ann Phillips, who up until this point had been standing quietly next to her husband listening to the proceedings, began screaming at the sight of her husband being chained and dragged back to slavery. Her sudden outburst aroused the crowd that had gathered in Walnut Street to await the results, and when the slave catchers emerged from McAllister’s office with the chained Phillips in tow, they reacted with shock and anger.

The Virginians were visibly armed, however, with “pistols, bowie knives [and] dirks,” and Phillips was hobbled by the fetters and could barely walk, making the traditional diversion and rescue almost impossible. Also, since they were only taking their prisoner across the street to the county prison, there was no time to plan an ambush or rescue. The men, women, and children in the street were family friends, not a violent mob, and an immediate confrontation would have risked many innocent lives. They consoled themselves with leading the distraught Mary Ann Phillips home to her children.83

Just after sunrise the next morning, James Phillips was removed from the county prison by Hudson and Vowles, and taken to the Cumberland Valley train station on Chestnut Street. They boarded the early morning train with their heavily shackled prisoner, and at six o’clock a.m. the train left Harrisburg via the Cumberland Valley Railroad Bridge, passing the same spot at which Phillips has been arrested the day before.

The swift and brutal removal of a well-known and respected local man deeply affected many in Harrisburg, both black and white. In reply to anxious inquiries from local white residents, the Virginians revealed that their destination was Baltimore, and within a short time a Harrisburg man, identified as Mr. Shell, was dispatched to that city to find out how Phillips could be redeemed.84 The suddenness of the hearing and the cold, mercenary spirit of the former owner, combined with the genuine affection that many in Harrisburg felt for James Phillips, triggered a highly unusual public appeal to raise funds for his redemption. Within days of his arrest, a plan to buy him back was underway, spearheaded by his employer, John H. Brant, abolitionist Dr. William W. Rutherford, and merchant Eby Byers.

After arriving in Baltimore, Shell sent word back to Harrisburg that he had arrived safely, which had been a concern, considering the fate of William Miller the previous December, but he also reported that he could not locate the slave catching party of Hudson and Vowles. Shell returned to Harrisburg days later with no news regarding the fate of James Phillips. The recovery effort came to a halt for a lack of information on the whereabouts of Phillips, and his family and friends despaired of ever seeing him again.

 

"They have got poor James Phillips here with irons on"

Then, in late June, Mary Ann Phillips received a letter from her husband, dated “R[ichmond,] June 20. 1852.” It turned out that the men had taken Phillips almost immediately from Baltimore to Richmond, where he was sold to slave merchant William A. Branton for five hundred and five dollars. Although James was illiterate, he had gotten permission from his new owner to have a letter written on his behalf, and sent to his wife in Harrisburg.

In the typical style of nineteenth century correspondence, it began “D[ear] W[ife]—I will now write to you to inform you where I am and my health. I am well, and I am in hopes when you receive this, it may find you well also.” Phillips then went on to give his situation and hopes of being quickly redeemed:

I am now in a trader's hands, by the name of Mr. Branton, and he is going to start South with a lot of negroes in August. I do not like this country at all, and had almost rather die than to go South. Tell all of the people that if they can do anything for me, now is the time to do it. I can be bought for $900. Do, pray, try and get Brant and Mr. Byers and Mr. Weaver to send or some one to buy me, and if they will only buy me back, I will be a faithful man to them so long as I live. Show Mr. Brant and Mr. Weaver this letter, and tell them to come on as soon as they possibly can to buy me. My master is willing to sell me to any gentleman who will be so kind as to come on to buy me. They have got poor James Phillips here with irons on, to keep him from getting away; and do pray, gentlemen, do not feel any hesitation at all, but came on as soon as you can and buy me. Feel for me now or never. If any of you will be so kind as to come on to buy me, inquire for Cochran's Jail. I can be found there, and my master is always at the Jail himself. My master gave me full consent to have this letter written, as do not feel any hesitation to come on and see about poor James Phillips . Dear wife, show it to these men as soon as you get it, and let them write back immediately what they intend to do. Direst your letter to my master William A. Branton, Richmond, Va., Try and do something for me as soon as you can, for I want to get back very bad indeed.—Do not think anything at all of the price, for I am worth twice that amount. I can make it for any person who will buy, in a short time. I have nothing more to write only I wish I may be bought and carried back to Harrisburg in a short time. My best love to you, my wife. You may depend I am almost dying to see you and my children. You must do all you can for your husband.85

Having finally determined where the unfortunate Harrisburg teamster was being held, his benefactors, led by Dr. William W. Rutherford and Eby Byers, dispatched attorney Charles C. Rawn to Virginia to try to bring him back. Rawn reached the Virginia capital, and on 10 July found Phillips and began negotiations with his new owner. Back in Harrisburg, Rutherford and Byers received a telegraph from Rawn informing him that they had better raise the eight hundred dollars that Mr. Branton demanded as payment for their friend “right away.” The negotiations dragged on as Rawn bought time for his Harrisburg contacts to raise the needed funds.

When he was not busy negotiating for James Phillips’ life, Rawn walked around the southern capital and observed firsthand the operations of several Richmond slave markets. On his first day, having just arrived at the local slave market frequented by Branton, Rawn wrote:

While looking round I witnessed the most horrible, and Heaven defying scenes of the inspection & sale of 5 or 6 females ranging from 17 to 26 or 30 years old, 3 of them with infant children...another stout strong looking man 40 to 44 yrs old all put up 'warranted sound' and title perfect...The man was taken behind a screen, his trowsers stripped down to his feet and his shirt pushed on to his waist as though his private parts, behind & spine and thighs and legs were the parts most desirable to be perfect...He was put on the "block" as they call it, being something like a large table or platform abt 6 ft by 4 mounted by 4 or 5 steps where the slave stands while the auctioneer sells him.
They are carefully examined by the hardened looking dealers who appeared there in numbers from 50 to 100...one female was taken behind the screen for more special examination--several men going and any one that chose to, to look at her. They undid some part of her dress about the shoulders & chest. I understand since that this is frequently for the purpose of examining their backs, shoulders &c to see if they have been much injured by whipping.
After being sold they are taken off to the private jails of the several purchasers where they are kept till he sells again or gathers a drove with which to move South.

Five days later, Rawn recorded:

I saw one very fine tall & large looking yellow woman (about 25 or 30 years of age) long, straight black Indian looking hair & Indian face & soft & sorrowful expression. She looked permanently pensive & sad & when put on the "block" while the sale of her was going on, I saw the big tears slowly & as if imperceptibly to her trickling down her cheeks--she seemed instinctively modest & disdainful about free examinations usually made of their ankles and legs and when the black man whose business it was to show them off &c was on one and the only one raising her dress & clothing, she jerked them out of his hand with decided promptness.

The Harrisburg attorney finally reached an agreement with William Branton to purchase Phillips as soon as the funds could be sent from Harrisburg. Branton, satisfied that he had made a sale, allowed Rawn to visit with Phillips in the slave pen, and Rawn was horrified to find his friend hobbled by “a chain about as heavy as an ox chain link of some 8 to 10 links from one leg to the other.” He returned later that evening, and in later days, to visit Phillips and to keep his hopes up while they waited for the money to arrive.

Branton seemed to take a fancy to his frequent Harrisburg visitor and proudly showed off the rest of the facilities, which imprisoned about twenty-five or thirty slaves of all ages. Rawn went on to describe Branton's "jail" where he saw Jim Philips, and wrote, prophetically:

The more I see however the More I detest & abhor the accursed business. That it is accursed of Heaven I as firmly believe as that I believe in the Justice and goodness of God. And this Nation will yet weep over this National sin of slavery & a slave trade in sackcloth & ashes and the severer Judgment of a righteous God who will surely visit us as a Nation with our National sins.86

Finally, about noon on Friday, 30 July, William Branton and his son George accompanied Charles Rawn and James Phillips to his clerk’s office to officially transfer ownership of Phillips. In his pocket, Rawn carried a bank draft for eight hundred dollars, the agreed-upon price, which had been hand delivered to Rawn two days earlier by William Rutherford. There, nearly ten weeks after he had been knocked down and hauled off to jail in Harrisburg, James Phillips officially became the property, according to Virginia law, of John H. Brant, William W. Rutherford, and Eby Byers, of Harrisburg. As they walked to Richmond City Hall for the official copy of the Bill of Sale, William Branton remarked to his clerk that Phillips “was now a happier man he presumed since his release than he Branton ever expected to be.” The offhand remark only confirmed for Rawn how far removed the slave traders were from the humanity of the people they bought and sold.

By nine o’clock p.m. Rawn and Phillips were on a train heading back to Harrisburg. They arrived to a “tumultuous welcome” from Harrisburg’s African American community, which met the men at the train station. After a joyous reunion with his wife and children, the crowd put the Phillips family in a small wagon and staged an impromptu welcome home parade through town.87 The joy exhibited by Harrisburg’s African American community for this one victory was rivaled only by the happiness that James Phillips felt when he was finally freed to return to his family.

 

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Notes

80. Frederick Douglass Paper, 24 June 1852.

81. Eggert, Harrisburg Industrializes, 26-33.

82. J.A. Spofford’s Harrisburg Directory of 1843, Advertisement for “John H. Brant, Wholesale Grocer.” Reproduced in “1840s Advertisements of Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward,” http://www.old8thward.com/1840ads.htm (accessed 8 November 2009); Advertisement for “J. H. Brant, Forwarding and Commission Merchant, Harrisburg, Pa,” in Carlisle Herald and Expositor, 1 November 1843; Frew, Building Harrisburg, 38-39; Gerald G. Eggert, “Notes and Documents: A Pennsylvanian Visits the Richmond Slave Market,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 109, no. 4 (October 1985): 572.

83. Star and Banner, 28 May 1852; Frederick Douglass Paper, 24 June 1852; Eggert, “Impact,” 552-553. Details of Charles C. Rawn’s involvement in the hearing is from Eric Ledell Smith, “The Underground Railroad in Dauphin County,” Susquehanna Heritage 2 (2004): 19.

84. Liberator, 11 June 1852. I believe that the person sent to Baltimore to search for James Phillips was Cornelius M. Shell, the young lawyer and son of former sheriff Jacob Shell. As a fellow lawyer, he had close ties with both McKinney and Rawn, he was young, so far unmarried, and adventurous.

85. Liberator, 16 July 1852. In the Harrisburg population schedules of the Census of 1850, James Phillips was enumerated as a person who could neither read nor write.

86. Entries dated 10 and 15 July 1852, Rawn Journals, (accessed 11 November 2009).

87. Entry dated 30 July 1852, Rawn Journals; Eggert, “A Pennsylvanian,” 576; Eric Ledell Smith, “Underground Railroad in Dauphin County,” 21. News of the redemption of James Phillips was carried in newspapers as far as New York State. The Oswego Daily Journal, on the same day that William Rutherford placed the bank draft for James Phillips in the hands of Charles C. Rawn, published a blurb regarding the fundraising effort, reporting, “The citizens of Harrisburgh have subscribed $900 for the purchase of the fugitive slave Phillips, who was arrested in that place some weeks ago and taken South.”

 

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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