Harrisburg's African American Community Moves Through the Twentieth Century
Free Persons of Color
The Violent Decade
US Colored Troops
Year of Jubilee (1863)
Simon Chism, a Formerly Enslaved
African American Resident
Significant numbers of formerly enslaved African Americans made their homes in central Pennsylvania in the 19th and 20th centuries. Some escaped enslavement and traveled north via the Underground Railroad before 1865. Many more found themselves no longer enslaved by war's end and looked north for job opportunites or to escape the harsh poverty and crushing racism of southern Reconstruction. The first few decades of the 20th century saw large numbers of southern Blacks moving north to take advantage of the plentiful jobs in northern industries.
Their presence in northern cities enriched each African American community. Their shared first-hand stories of lives enslaved broadened the historical perspective and served to counter the "Lost Cause" myths. Knowing which citizens were formerly enslaved is invaluable for modern historians and persons researching their family histories. Small connections can often add up to bigger stories. The news items below represent snippets in the lives of these persons.
News Items, February 28, 1916 and April 3, 1916
Text of February news article:
Ol' Simon Chism of Courthouse Fame Goes to Poorhouse at Last
Obdurate, even defiant, for years at all the kindly efforts of county and city officials to procure him a comfortable home at the Dauphin County almshouse, Ol' Simon Chism, the white-head negro with the demeanor of the bearer of the title role in Mrs. Stowe's slave story, yielded Saturday to the persuasive influence of a county poor doctor -- and trolleyed and tramped over the hills to the poorhouse.
"Simon," as he was familiarly known to the scores of lawyers, court attaches, heads and clerks of the departments, put in a more or less tottering existence day after day in the courthouse corridors or in the Prothonotary's office. A small pension and the change purses of lawyers and department heads and clerks helped Simon keep body and soul together. He often boasted of being an ex-slave.
Text of April news article:
No Longer Will "Ol' Simon" Chism Linger About the Courthouse
"Ol' Simon" Chism, the white-headed, bent and wrinkled negro who for years was a familiar figure about the courthouse corridors and offices, will visit the county's official home no more.
Simon, who only a few weeks ago, was removed to the county almshouse died there this morning at the ripe old age of 74.
The negro, who was well known to every lawyer, county official and courthouse attache for years, was often called the "Courthouse Uncle Tom." Simon frequently gave a little color touch to the suggestion by declaring that he well remembered his "slave days."
Funeral arrangements have not yet been completed.
Death Certificate for Simon Chism (1842 - 1916)
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