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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 Ten
The Bridge (continued)

 

Roll Forward the Day

And 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.

Besides, 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

It 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.

At 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.

They 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 beginning.

Taking 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.

Called 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.

Together 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 read:

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

John Wolf 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.

The most 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.

The association 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 Representatives.

While in 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.”

McKim located 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 his experiences:

"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' sir."

"Here," continued 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 that cellar?"

" Yes, sir -- all the males: -- they lie upon the floor -- each one has got a couple of blankets."

" 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 the jail."

" What is your charge?"

" 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 corn bread."

" How many meals do you give them in a day?"

" Two sir, -- one at 9 o'clock and the other at 3."12

McKim’s 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

McKim's description 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 early 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.”

Finally, 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.

Then Garrison 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.

Radical and 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.

Many white 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.

The Harrisburg 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.

Although 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.

They had 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.”

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Notes

10. Daily 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).

11. Daily 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.

12. Colored 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.

13. Ibid.

14. Mayer, All on Fire, 443-445.

 

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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