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Female African American factory workers pose for a group portrait, circa 1920.



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Henrietta Jones, a Formerly Enslaved
African American Resident Dies in Harrisburg at Age 103


An aged African American woman sits next to a stove. Image created with the assistance of AI.

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 Item, January 22, 1917


1917 newspaper notice of the death of Henrietta Jones, known as Aunt Hetty, in Harrisburg at age 103, part one.

Text of news article:
Came to Harrisburg Soon After Civil War Closed -- Active in Church Work Until Taken Ill for the Last Time

Mrs. Henrietta Jones, colored, perhaps the oldest resident of this city, was found dead in her little one-story frame shanty, Indian and Railroad streets, early this morning. Mrs. Jones, who was known as old "Aunt Hetty," had been complaining to neighbors of feeling bad for the last several days and when she was found this morning, she was lying on a cot fully covered and wrapped in many covers in an effort to keep warm.

Residents of South Harrisburg, where she is known to probably every person -- especially to children -- claim that she was 103 years old and up until a day or so ago she was fairly active. Although unable to do much work on account of her extreme age, "Aunt Hetty" traveled through the neighborhood in which she lived and managed to do little odd jobs for money, food or for clothing, which was her only means of support.

Frequently she would walk to the home of friends living in the central part of the city, and was an ardent church worker. She was a member of the Wesley A.M.E. church. When this congregation was ordered to vacate its church, which was located in the Capitol Park extension zone, she broke the ground for the erection of the building which now stands at Briggs and Ash streets. At that time, which was less than three years ago, "Aunt Hetty" said she was 100 years of age.

Neighbors with whom she had been friendly said that "Aunt Hetty" had a remarkable memory and related many interesting stories of her life as a slave. Just where Mrs. Jones was born the neighbors could not say, but stated that she came to Harrisburg at the end of the Civil war and took possession of the little shanty at Indian and Railroad streets, in which she was found dead. For more than fifty years, "Aunt Hetty" has resided alone in that little shanty.

She is survived by a daughter, Mrs. Molly Dorsey, of Buffalo, and a son, who resides some place in Montana. Neighbors have decided to try and get the correct location of these two children and notify them of their mother's death. Coroner Eckinger was summoned and said that death was due to old age.

Second part of the death notice of former slave Henrietta Jones, in Harrisburg, at age 103.


Harrisburg Daily Independent, 22 January 1917.

Harrisburg Telegraph, 24 January 1917.

Published death notice for Henrietta Jones, January 1917.

Additional News Articles

News article about Henrietta Jones being asked to participate in Wesley Church groundbreaking, 1914.

Harrisburg Telegraph, 15 April 1914.

Biographical information on Henrietta Jones, from newspaper, 1914.

Text of news article:
And 99-year-old Auntie Henrietta has Been Going Ever Since

Ninety-nine years of life -- and none of it an easy existence -- has left Auntie Henrietta Jones wrinked and bowed. Still she is looking forward to the crowning incident of her career, for on next Monday she will break ground for the building of a new Wesley Union African Methodist Episcopal Church at Ash and Forster streets. The aged negress will turn the first shovelful of earth and then will stand aside and listen to the ceremonies attending the service.

"Auntie's" care-lined face lit up today as she told of her part in this coming event. "Hit are a long-time back, chile, that I fust started to go to church. I recken you-all wa'n't bawn at that pa'ticulah time. Yass'r, I come to Harrisburg soon's Massa Lincoln done free me from mah cruel master. I suah did have a bad time down Marylan' way."

Mrs. Jones gave a graphic picture of her serfdom under one Thomas La Mar, of Jefferson, Md., who, according to her account, must have had something on Legree. He used to beat the slaves and sell them up on slight notice. Once she tried to escape, and after that was kept under constant surveillance. As soon as the slaves were freed she came to this city and settled in the white-washed two-roomed house in which she at present lives.

Every Sunday she walks from her home to the African Methodist Episcopal Church, in South street, sits attentively during the service and them takes her way back home. She is a picturesque figure at the services, and the members of the congregation would think something had gone wrong if she were not in her accustomed seat every Sunday.

Source: Harrisburg Telegraph, 16 April 1914

Biographical Research

Henrietta Jones is first found in Harrisburg census records in 1880 living with her husband, Oscar, on Indian Alley. Oscar's reported age is 55 (born 1825), with an occupation of "huckster," and Henrietta's reported age is 53 (born 1827), and occupation of "keeping house." Living in their household is a son, George, age 11 (born 1869) in school. Their son is reported born in Pennsylvania, while both Oscar and Henrietta report births in Maryland. Oscar and Henrietta's mothers and fathers are all also reported as being born in Maryland. Also living in their household in 1880 are two nephews, Albert Fry, age 7, and Joseph Fry, age 5, both at home and not in school. Both Albert and Joseph are reported as born in Maryland. (Tenth Census of the United States, 1880, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvnia, enumerated 2 June 1880, E.D. 81, page 4.)

Most records of the 1890 census were destroyed in a fire. In the 1900 census, Henrietta Jones is found at the same address, a widow, repored age 79, with a reported month and year of birth as September 1820. A single boarder lives with her, Daniel Ford, a 41-year-old laborer born in Virginia. By 1910, the last census in which she appears, four years before her death, she is still living on Indian Alley, with a reported age of 96 (born 1814). In 1910 she has two boardders living with her: William Brooks, a 53-year-old single laborer born in Maryland, and William Hawkins, a 66-year-old widowed laborer born in Virginia. (Twelfth Census of the United States, 1900, Harrisburg, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, 2 June 1900, E.D. 49, sheet 4; Thirteenth Census of the United States, 1910, Harrisburg City, Dauphin County, Pennsylvania, 23 April 1910, E.D. 53, sheet 10.)

The obituary for her husband, Oscar Jones, appeared in the Harrisburg Daily Independent, 30 January 1896. It reads: "Oscar D. F. Jones died yesterday at his residence, on Indian avenue, after a lingering illness. He was born in Maryland in 1823 and came to Harrisburg in 1861. He was a prominent member of the A.M.E. Zion church. Deceased is survived by a wife, one daughter and five sons."

Oscar Jones was a prominent member of Harrisburg's African American community, being on the committee to plan local celebrations of the adoption of the 15th Amendment in 1870. He appears on a May 1870 list of Harrisburg merchants as owning a grocery in the city's 8th Ward. He may also have owned a tavern, as in September of that year he was charged with keeping a "disorderly bawdy house. In November court he was cleared of any wrongdoing. An 1876 news item promoting an excursion to Martinsburg, West Virgnia noted that tickes may be had at Oscar Jones' restaurant. He was very active in fundraising and social activities in Wesley A.M.E. Church. In 1887 he was a pallbearer for the funeral of Mary Jones, wife of William Jones.

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