Persons of Color
The Bridge (concluded)
Year of Jubilee is Come
so it happened, in the fading light of Monday, the twenty-ninth
day of June in the year 1863, that one hundred and fifty African
American men left their families in Tanner’s Alley, Short Street,
East South Street, Mulberry Street, and from the unnamed dirt paths
in the temporary refugee camps east of the canal, and assembled with
their weapons to strike a blow against the slave powers.
marched to the river, passing the market houses on the square where
Daniel Dangerfield had been cornered by slave catchers in 1859, past
the brownstone mansions at the corner of Front Street that had harbored
fugitive slaves until they could be sent to the Rutherford farms in
the Paxtang Valley, past the spot at the Cumberland Valley Railroad
Bridge where James Phillips had been kidnapped by Richard McAllister
in 1852. As they marched across Front Street into the first wooden
span of the covered bridge that would take them to the impending battle
for Harrisburg, the sites of their persistent heritage of resistance
were left behind, but that rich heritage certainly traveled with them.
body, they numbered one hundred and fifty, more or less, but in spirit,
they numbered in the tens of thousands. Marching along with them, in
spirit, were the women and men of Harrisburg’s African American
community from present day to decades long past. First came Hercules,
the pioneer and first of their number, who helped carve a settlement
in the wilderness, and Scipio, who first took his freedom in 1749 from
Captain Thomas Prather of Prince George's County, Maryland. Marching
alongside them was Dick, gifted in languages, who escaped from Paxton
Township farmer John Postlethwaite in 1766, and William Keith, highly
literate, being able to read and write, and an opportunist, who ran
from William Chesney while the latter was staying with his stepbrother
John Harris II at Harris Ferry.
Craig was also there. The spirited woman was over sixty years old when
she left Archibald McAllister at Fort Hunter in the dead of winter
in 1828, never to be seen again. She marched beside Governor Dick,
the fiercely independent collier with strong African tribal influences,
who took his leave whenever he felt like it from the woods around Cornwall
were also the hundreds who left masters in Pennsylvania to answer the
call of Lord Dunmore in 1775. Their regiment’s uniform bore the
inscription "Liberty to Slaves.” They included the rebellious
Cuff Dix, from Birdsboro Forge, Polly King, who left Persifor Frazer
for her chance at liberty, and bore her son Robert in glorious freedom
a year later behind British lines.
Harrisburg came Joe, who ran from Jacob Awl in 1777. Joining these
freedom seekers were those who were called to service in other ways.
There was the unnamed slave of Andrew Lycan, who cared for the wounded
and took them to safety during an Indian attack on Lycan's farm in
1756 at Wiconisco. There was Hercules Johnston, who was born in Paxton
Township and who enlisted with the Fourth Pennsylvania Regiment of
the Continental Army at Carlisle in 1782. For him, freedom was better
obtained by fighting with the colonists against the tyranny of British
the march to the river were the maroons, who kept their freedom by
surviving under their own rule. There was the solitary Joseph Johns,
who lived in a hut in Union Township, Lebanon County, George Washington,
who lived on Blue Mountain above Harrisburg, and the residents of the
enduring community of fugitive slaves in Long Swamp, near Pottsville,
who welcomed freedom seekers to their closed village and kept outsiders
at bay with ghost stories and witchcraft. There were even the unnamed
bandits who inhabited the remote woods for a time near Cornwall Furnace,
who found a certain freedom in lawlessness.
John Hall, of York County, joined the march. It was he who, in 1793,
brazenly published in local newspapers a challenge for anyone who could
prove him a slave to come forward and do so. No one did, and Hall continued
to live free. Also in spirit beside the men marched Fleming Mitchell,
who steadfastly maintained his freedom in Harrisburg through decades
reinforcing the ranks were the riotous crowds from Harrisburg in 1825,
from Carlisle in 1847, and the organized black minutemen, which included
Harrisburg’s forty rescuers summoned to the Rutherford Farm in
1845, the Short Street neighborhood watch, organized in 1849, The Henry
Highland Garnet Guards, of 1859, the last to carry weapons before the
was not just the ghosts of military men who marched to the Camel Back
Bridge with the volunteers on Monday the twenty-ninth of June. For
there was Thomas Dorsey, who began educating Black children in Harrisburg
in 1817, and the entrepreneurs who defied white efforts to limit them
to the lowest labor roles: Ezekiel Carter, who sawed firewood and carried
water until he earned enough money to purchase land and build boarding
houses, John Battis and Edward Bennett, the chimney sweeps, and Curry
Taylor, who brought fresh vegetables and fish from Philadelphia.
were joined by James McClintock, who marched with fellow barbers Matthias,
Felix and Henry Dorsey, and George and Marie Chester, the restaurateurs
and caterers. Judy Richards and her daughter Mary Ann Richards, who
oversaw the welfare of the neighborhood Judy's Town, were also there.
parade included the victims of the slave powers: the kidnapped Rachel
Parker, the martyred William Smith, and the ransomed James Phillips.
The Butler family of Dickinson Township, kidnapped in 1860, joined
in. Religious leaders Jacob D. Richardson, who oversaw the founding
of Wesley Union Church in 1829, David Stevens, who had charge of the
A.M.E. Harrisburg Circuit, and was aided by George Galbraith, were
also there, as was Daniel Alexander Payne, whose extensive travels
throughout central Pennsylvania helped religious leaders stay in tune
with the black struggle to maintain rights and fight slavery.
W. Gardiner, the spirited elder who bolstered Harrisburg's underground
in an hour of need was reliably present. Political leaders Junius and
Caroline Morel, Carlisle's John Peck, opponent of colonization Jacob
D. Williams, Columbia's William Whipper and Stephen Smith, all advocates
of moral elevation, joined the march. Harrisburg's Thomas W. Brown,
who turned to political activism after a cannon was aimed at his home
in 1849, came along. Jacob C. White, Jr., who inspired resistance in
the name of brotherhood and heritage, led the spiritual companies.
activists William Thompson, agent for Martin R. Delany's newspaper,
and Edward Thompson, the Underground Railroad activist who initially
hired Charles C. Rawn and Mordecai McKinney in 1850, marched. The husband
and wife activist team of John F. and Hannah Williams marched. Schoolteacher
John Wolf certainly marched, as did activist Thomas Early, and Dr.
William M. "Pap" Jones and his wife Mary. Joseph C. Bustill,
the game changer was present. Samuel Bennett, who, along with John
Wolf and David Stevens, drafted the proclamation in January that guided
the community through the war, was present.
the banner of freedom and liberty for the spiritual auxiliary were
the heroes who sacrificed all. There was Archibald Smith, captured
in 1843 and charged with guiding fugitive slaves, and Thomas and Harriett
Pinkney, who lost their freedom in 1860 for helping others gain theirs.
Joseph Popel, who could not stand idly by and watch other men be beaten,
was at the fore along with William and Eliza Parker, who fought back
against the slave powers without hesitation and arguably began the
Civil War at their farm near the tiny town of Christiana in 1851. Commanding
the spiritual force were Captain John Brown and his lieutenant, Shields
Green, who had so nobly carried the fight to the enemy.
was a grand and triumphant host that accompanied Harrisburg’s
black men from their neighborhoods to the bridge, although it was imperceptible
to all but the men who marched through the late June heat, down the
city’s hard-packed dirt streets to the river.
hundred and fifty pairs of boots and brogans left Front Street and
clattered noisily across the wooden floorboards of the first span of
the Market Street Bridge, leaving their sons, daughters, wives, and
sweethearts behind in Harrisburg’s African American neighborhoods.
They were knowingly marching to a battle that they could not win, but
that they knew they must fight.
was not a march to doom and defeat, however, but an advance toward
glory, infused with a sense of solidarity and purpose. The men of Harrisburg’s
two African American companies carried with them the legacy of two
centuries of righteous struggle. In the coming battle, they would be
fighting not only for their homes and for families, but also in the
name of all the people listed above who followed them in spirit.
year 1863 had begun with a thundering trumpet call, proclaiming from
the nave of the Bethel A.M.E. Church to earth’s “remotest
bound” that the African American men and women of Harrisburg
were aroused to action. The need for action would not be long in coming.
They had watched in alarm that spring as the storm clouds once again
gathered, although the storm that developed in 1863 was perceptibly
different to them from previous disturbances. They could see, in this
approaching storm, the signs of Heavenly fury.
it was no more than visions in the gray clouds, as preached some thirty-seven
years earlier in Harrisburg by Jarena Lee, who had related the prophecy
of a young man who “saw in the sky men, marching like armies,
whether it was with the naked eye, or a Vision by the eye of Faith.” Lee’s
sermons had been heard by many who still resided in Harrisburg, and
now they firmly believed, as prophesied by the itinerant female preacher,
that the approaching storm was “The lowering judgments of God…let
loose upon the Nation and slavery.”
began with a series of squalls that blew in, first north from Boston,
then a wave from the South that moved steadily northward. Now the storm
was breaking in the form of a final battle, but it was a struggle long
heralded. It was in the hymn they had sung all year:
all the nations know,
To earth's remotest bound:
The year of jubilee is come!
The year of jubilee is come!
Monday evening, after the African American companies had
marched by to take their places in the fort, a reporter from the New
York Gazette, in defiance of General Couch’s order closing
off the fortifications to news correspondents, sat down on an earthen
parapet in Fort Washington, overlooking the capital, and composed
his report to be sent via telegraph to his editor. It was a particularly
grim summation of the situation. He penciled in the dateline as “Fort
Washington, West Bank of the Susquehanna, June 29, - Evening,” then
began his report:
As the sun goes down
in the west it leaves within this fort and within and around Harrisburg
an anxious, wondering, guessing, partially fearful and somewhat
excited population. The enemy holds a position almost describing
an arc of a circle. The extremes rest on two main roads, cross
the railroads, and extend through wheat and corn fields and some,
small woods. He has pickets out in all valuable positions, and
has artillery commanding and intended to sweep the roads and protect
his front and flank.
He then wrote, “We expect
a fight to-morrow, more or less general or serious in its character.”238 It
was a very foreboding sentence for a very desperate night. For the
African American community of Harrisburg, whose armed sons and brothers
bore their collective legacy of struggle against oppression as a mantle
of honor, it was no less desperate or frightening, but sustained by
faith and heritage, they took their places in the fortifications and
prepared for the climactic battle of a momentous year. It was the year
of our Lord, eighteen hundred and sixty-three.
It was the year of Jubilee.
York Gazette, 30 June 1863.