Persons of Color
The Bridge (continued)
Forward the Day
so it was decided among Harrisburg’s African American
community leaders that they needed to release a public statement
of support for the document. A notice was posted announcing a general
meeting, to be held on Tuesday evening, 15 January, at Reverend Gibbs’ Bethel
A.M.E. Church, to make a response to the president’s Emancipation
Proclamation. The Bethel Church was most likely chosen because it
was the only African American church building in town that could
hold all of the people expected to attend. The Wesley Union congregation
was using the Colored Masonic Hall for their services while their
new church was being built, and the Presbyterian Church, under Reverend
Gardiner, was far too small, consisting then of only a rented room.
Other public spaces would not do; it had to be a church, as befitted
the solemnity of the proclamation.
the local African American churches had served as the headquarters
for all anti-slavery activities undertaken by the local black population
for more than thirty years, so it was highly appropriate that this
meeting “to take into consideration the Proclamation of Freedom” be
held in one.10
proved to be a crowded house, much to the delight of the community
leaders who, according to parliamentary procedure, gaveled the public
meeting to order. A motion was made to allow John H. Dickerson to preside
over the meeting, and he received as his vice-presidents three local
men held in high regard: Zachariah Johnson, a leader of the local black
Masons, Samuel M. Bennett, and of course the Reverend Gibbs, in whose
church they were assembled. Schoolteacher John Wolf and physician Henry
Jones were appointed as secretaries, after which Reverend Gibbs offered
a prayer that the assembled citizens would perform their duties with
wisdom and courage.
that point, the church musical director, Jacob T. Cumpton, stepped
forward and led the Bethel A.M.E. choir in a favorite and particularly
appropriate hymn, Charles Wesley’s “Blow Ye the Trumpet,
Blow.” It was appropriate in more than one way. Very soon the
entire assembled congregation began to join in, singing “Let
all the nations know, to earth’s remotest bound, the Year of
Jubilee is come!” Indeed. This, they intended to do tonight.
began their work, once the last notes of joyous song had faded, by
reading aloud the document that had brought them all together. In a
booming voice, the chosen reader announced, “A Proclamation!
Whereas, on the twenty-second day of September, in the year of our
Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-two, a proclamation was issued
by the President of the United States.” He continued through
the text of the document, and the souls packed into that small wooden
church on Short Street must have swelled with emotion when he reached
the part dearest to them: “All persons held as slaves within
said designated States, and parts of States, are, and henceforward
shall be free.” It concluded with words of great finality: “Done
at the City of Washington,” but their work this evening was just
the lead for his fellow officers, Reverend Gibbs then proposed that
several worthy men be chosen to draft a response to the Proclamation
that would express all of the hopes, dreams, fears, and promises of
Harrisburg’s African American community. The men chosen would
have a monumental task, as the response had to succinctly reflect not
just the hopes and fears of a people who had endured hundreds of years
of bondage and racism, but it also had to be grounded in the realities
of the current political climate, and of course, the war.
to draft this preamble and resolution were three men who carried the
complete trust of the local community: John Wolf, Samuel Bennett, and
David Stevens. The congregation had chosen well. Wolf was the respected
schoolteacher and stalwart abolitionist in whose home Frederick Douglass
had stayed during his disastrous trip to Harrisburg in 1847. Wolf was
also an organizer and leader, having begun the local chapter of African
American Odd Fellows. Samuel M. Bennett was a scion of the venerable
and successful Bennett Family, was a leader in local beneficial organizations,
and represented the Wesley Union congregation. The Reverend David Stevens,
also from the Wesley Union Church, was familiar to all. He had been
an active abolitionist and Underground Railroad supporter in Harrisburg
since the 1830s, and remained politically active in advancing the rights
of African Americans in Pennsylvania.
these three men took on the challenge of writing a response that would
properly befit Abraham Lincoln’s historic proclamation. They
went to work while the congregation prayed, sang, talked, and waited.
Like Watch Night, on New Year’s Eve, it was a long but purposeful
night. Finally, Wolf, Bennett, and Stevens finished their task and
presented it for inspection to a committee of discussion consisting
of three respected clergymen and four local businessmen. After some
discussion, the committee decided that it was a worthy document, and
they voted unanimously to adopt it. On Friday, the Telegraph published
it under the headline “A Jubilee of Freedom.” Their resolution
WHEREAS, Abraham Lincoln,
President of the United States of America, did, on the 1st day
of January, 1863, issue a Proclamation that those states or parts
of states that were resisting the lawful authority of the Government
of the United States, that their slaves should be freed on the
1st of January, 1863, therefore;
Resolved, That we, the
colored citizens of the city of Harrisburg, hail the 1st day of
January, 1863, as a new era in our country's history--a day in
which injustice and oppression were forced to flee and cower before
the benign principles of justice and righteousness--a day in which
the Goddess of Liberty, decked with the jewels of justice, presented
to the sable sons and daughters of the south the inestimable boon
of liberty--a day from which the enfranchised will be able to look
forward into the future with the full assurance that they will
be able to sit down under their own "vine and fig tree, with
none to molest them or make them afraid."
Resolved, That if our
wishes had been consulted we would have preferred that the proclamation
should have been general instead of partial; but we can only say
to our brethren of the "border States," be of good cheer--the
day of your deliverance draweth nigh--do not act contrary to the
rules of propriety and good citizenship, for the rod of your oppressors
will eventually be smitten by the omnipotence of truth--the "ark" of
liberty will yet dwell within your borders and rest within your
gates--the fires of freedom shall light your hill tops, and your
valleys shall be made vocal with the songs of liberty.
Resolved, That the American
flag is now a true emblem of liberty; and if called upon we feel
bound as citizens to maintain its supremacy o'er land and sea,
against foreign foes or domestic traitors.
Resolved, That we are
well aware that freedom and citizenship are attended with responsibilities;
and that the success or failure of the proclamation depend entirely
upon ourselves, as public sentiment will be influenced for or against
that righteous decree by our correct deportment and moral standing
in the community.
Resolved, That although
the proclamation was not made as an act of philanthropy, or as
a grand deed of justice due to those suffering in bonds, but simply
as a war measure, still in it we recognize the hand of God; and
for it we are constrained to say, roll forward the day when the
American soil shall no more be polluted with that crime against
God, American slavery; but all will be able to say "Glory
to God in the highest, on earth peace and good will to man."11
and Henry Jones, as the meeting secretaries, had the honor of signing
their names to the document, but it was truly the work and sentiments
of the entire African American community. Their words soared from the
pages of the newspaper, and all of Harrisburg was now made aware of
the stance of the local black community toward this “new era” in
the nation’s history, for that was what the Emancipation Proclamation
represented to African Americans, not just in Harrisburg, but everywhere
in the country.
significant change, as they saw it, was that the American flag was
now “a true emblem of liberty.” This sentiment might have
seemed puzzling or even blatantly traitorous to the many white Harrisburg
residents who patriotically supported the troops fighting in the fields
of Virginia, and to whom the United States flag had always been a sacred
symbol, but it was consistent with the standard abolitionist view that
freedom was not universal in this country.
of American patriotic icons with injustice went back decades. Carlisle
native James Miller McKim had publicly made such an association as
early as 1838 in a published account of his visit to a slave prison
in Washington D.C. At that time McKim, who was a traveling lecturer
for the American Anti-Slavery Society, was in the nation’s capital
to hear John Quincy Adams speak out against slavery in the House of
Washington, he took the opportunity to visit the business of slave
dealer William H. Williams. The slave merchant kept a prison, from
which he housed and sold slaves, at Seventh and Maryland avenues in
Washington, DC. McKim was familiar with Williams’ business from
the slave dealer’s frequent advertisements for slaves in Washington
newspapers. One typical ad stated in part, "Cash for 300 Negroes.
The highest cash price will be given by the subscribers for Negroes
of both sexes, from the ages of 12 to 28.”
the business and asked to see the owner, but was informed that Mr.
Williams was on business in Natchez. McKim then asked to tour the establishment
and the holding areas, out of curiosity, and asked if the doorkeeper
had any objections. The doorkeeper had none, as McKim recalled, and
he obligingly showed the young abolitionist around. McKim recorded
"None at all, sir," and
with that he went to a window on one side of the room, and opened
the shutters -- threw up the sash, and invited me to look out.
"This is our 'pen'
he, while I surveyed an area of about 40 feet square, enclosed
partly by high jail walls built for the purpose, "here we
allow them to take exercise, and the children to play." As
it was very cold, the 'pen' was empty. They were all down in the
cellar, the agent said. I asked to go down and see them. He accordingly
led the way through a winding passage out into a temporary enclosure
which communicates with the 'pen.' He took out of his pocket a
key -- opened the lock of a huge iron cross-barred gate, which
admitted us to the space within. He then opened a door which led
us into the 'cellar.'
Here, in an apartment
of about 25 feet square, were about 30 slaves of all ages, sizes,
and colors. I noticed one young girl of about 12 years of age,
who seemed quite white, and another a little child about two years
old, of the same shade and one of the most beautiful children I
ever saw. The very small children were gamboling about unconscious
of their situation; but those of more advanced age were the most
melancholy looking beings. The wistful, inquiring, anxious looks
they cast at me (presuming I suppose that I came as a purchaser)
were hard to endure. I soon described the father and his family,
that I saw torn away from their former home, the day before.
"Where is your
master taking you?" said the agent to the man in answer to
a question of mine put to him of the same import:
" To Alabama -
I believe they call it," said the man in tones of the deepest
sadness. His wife sat beside the stove amusing her infant and never
once looked up all the time we were in. Not feeling at liberty
to ask questions of these poor things -- I soon turned away. He
then led me to two other apartments of about the same size; one
of them not now used, the other appropriated as a sleeping apartment
to the females. -- "Do all of these persons sleep down in
" Yes, sir -- all
the males: -- they lie upon the floor -- each one has got a couple
" But will that
room accommodate so many?"
" O Lord, yes,
sir, three times as many! -- last year we had as many as 139 in
these three rooms." I could hardly see how this was possible
without their lying on each other.
"Well, very few,
you say, of these persons belong to you."
" Only a few, sir,
-- most of them are put here by other gentlemen. You see, we can
afford to keep them for 9 cents apiece cheaper than they can at
" What is your
" 25 cents a day
for all except children at the breast." He then showed me
a table at one side of the enclosure where their meals were served
up. It was in the open air, with no other protection than a covering
from the storm. In answer to my inquiries, he told me they took
their meals in the open air summer and winter.
" But" said
I, “don't they suffer very much from the cold?”
" O Lord, no, sir,
they squat down and eat in ten minutes. We give them plenty of
substantial food -- herring, coffee sweetened with molasses and
" How many meals
do you give them in a day?"
" Two sir, -- one
at 9 o'clock and the other at 3."12
outrage was evident as he closed his report. “The guilt! The
shame! The heartlessness! The hypocrisy of this nation!” he raged. “These
are some of the abominations that exist in the District of Columbia!
The national domain of the American Republic! Within sight of the Capitol
and under the stars and stripes of our national flag! - Aye, the fustian
flag, that proudly waves in solemn mockery, o'er a Land of Slaves!”13
of a "fustian flag"—high sounding and boastful of a
liberty which extends only to white people—flying proudly over
the national Capitol only blocks away from a filthy, overcrowded slave
pen, is in turn drawn from the outrage expressed by his close friend
and American Anti-Slavery Society founder William Lloyd Garrison for
another national symbol, the Constitution.
as 1832, in the columns of The Liberator, Garrison had described
the Constitution as "dripping ...with human blood.” In later
years, Garrison would describe the Constitution as "a covenant
with death and an agreement with Hell.”
in his most famous act of defiance, Garrison was moved to publicly
burn a copy of the Fugitive Slave Law at a Fourth of July anti-slavery
rally in Framingham, Massachusetts in 1854, eliciting enthusiastic
shouts of “Amen!” from the crowd, who had just listened
to warm up speeches from Henry David Thoreau, Wendell Phillips, Lucy
Stone, and Sojourner Truth.
had picked up a copy of the Constitution of the United States and struck
a match under it. The crowd drew in a collective breath of shock and
amazement, and then stood transfixed as Garrison put the match to the
corner of the document that represented the law of the land, uttering, “So
perish all compromises with tyranny.” They watched in disbelief
as it erupted in flames and fell from his hand, then heard Garrison
shout, “And let all the people say, ‘Amen.’” The
crowd, consisting mostly of abolitionists, responded with a roar of
approval,14 but Garrison
was marked from that point on by his enemies as a dangerous radical
and a fanatical revolutionary.
revolutionary were terms applied by many Democrats to Lincoln’s
Emancipation Proclamation, which they derisively called the “Abolition
Proclamation,” to associate it with the more activist branches
of the anti-slavery movement, but with its enactment, the moral tide
of the war had now turned. By successfully linking Southern slave ownership
with the perpetuation of the Southern war effort, and by extension
also linking the Union war effort with anti-slavery, the abolitionists
had gained the upper hand in the anti-slavery argument.
civilians and soldiers already fighting the war found the change of
focus disconcerting and unwelcome. To them, the national flag already
stood for unity and freedom, and the war was a fight against secession.
They had never viewed the flag as anything else, and certainly did
not feel alienated by it. To African Americans, though, this cast the
national flag in an entirely different light. With the war now being
fought to end slavery, the flag had gained for blacks the same luster
of freedom long associated with it by whites.
committee also responded strongly to the second important point embodied
in the Proclamation: the decision to receive African Americans into
the armed forces. Pledging, “If called upon we feel bound as
citizens to maintain [the national flag’s] supremacy o'er land
and sea, against foreign foes or domestic traitors.” This was
neither an empty boast nor a hasty afterthought tacked on at the end,
but was the realization of a long suppressed desire to take an active,
legal part in the armed overthrow of a slave regime.
Some of the
same men who attended the public meeting in the Bethel Church had probably
marched with the Garnet Guards in August 1859, proudly showing their
bravery and willingness to defend their homes, as American militiamen
had done for many decades. The uproar and paranoia that followed John
Brown’s raid in Virginia, though, led to the prompt suppression
by local authorities of the Garnet Guards, with white citizens clamoring
for the confiscation of their muskets.
the flame of independence that burned fiercely in their hearts as they
marched smartly through the streets of Harrisburg as a freely organized
militia had been rudely extinguished by the heavy-handed backlash of
white paranoia, an ember of defiance remained deep inside, smoldering
all through the first war years. On 1 January, that ember flared forth
anew, feeding on the oxygen of freedom, propelled by the bellows of
the new proclamation.
read the words on the pages of the local newspaper. There, in black
and white, was the promise, that “such persons of suitable condition
will be received into the armed service of the United States.” The
flame of independence in their breasts had suddenly become a blaze
no less brilliant than the flames from the torches of the Wide Awakes,
nor would it be any easier to ignore. Harrisburg’s African American
men intended to be those “persons of suitable condition.”
Previous | Next
Telegraph, 18 January 1863. Reverend Mifflin Gibbs, pastor of
the Bethel A.M.E. Church on Short Street, does not appear to be the
same person as Mifflin Wistar Gibbs (1823-1915), the Philadelphia-born
abolitionist, businessman and politician. Mifflin W. Gibbs left Pennsylvania
for California’s gold fields in 1850, settling in San Francisco,
where he and business partner Peter Lester opened a store selling
boots and shoes. Later, he published the African American magazine Mirror
of Our Times, which campaigned for equal rights for blacks.
By 1858, Mifflin W. Gibbs and Peter Lester had relocated to Victoria,
British Columbia, in a small, but growing African American community
that had come to the area for the gold rush in the Fraser Valley.
Mifflin W. Gibbs and many of his fellow black Canadians voted in
the 1860 local elections, but had their votes disqualified because
they were not British citizens. He then became a naturalized citizen,
voted in the next election, and ran for, and won, a seat on Victoria
City Council in 1866, becoming the first elected black politician
in Canada. During the Civil War, Mifflin W. Gibbs remained in Canada.
There is no record of him returning to the United States for any
reason until after the war, and no record of his being a Methodist
minister, making it very unlikely that the pastor of the Bethel A.M.E.
was the same person. Sherry Edmunds-Flett, “Gibbs, Mifflin
Wistar,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online, http://www.biographi.ca/index-e.html (accessed
11 February 2010).
Telegraph, 18 January 1863. The Daily Telegraph news
article identified the president of the Watch Night meeting as J.
H. Dickinson. I have identified him in the text as John H. Dickerson,
a long-time African American resident of Harrisburg and a prolific
black rights activist.
American, 3 March 1838. Born in Carlisle, Pennsylvania, James
Miller McKim began lecturing for the American Anti-Slavery Society
in 1836. He became involved with publishing the Pennsylvania
Freeman in 1840, and became corresponding secretary for the
Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society, settling in Philadelphia. J. Miller
McKim was present when the crate containing Henry "Box" Brown
was opened at the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society headquarters
in March 1849. He frequently defended fugitive slaves brought before
the Federal slave commissioner in Philadelphia. McKim and his wife
Sarah attended the execution of John Brown and accompanied Brown's
wife in claiming his body and bringing it home.
14. Mayer, All
on Fire, 443-445.