Central Pennsylvania African American History for Everyone
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the 20th Century

Henry Webster, an Impoverished 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 Article, March 31, 1916

1916 news article about the arrest of impoverished formerly enslaved Henry Webster.

Text of news article:

Henry Webster, colored, a former slave, arrested on a charge of stealing four ears of corn, was discharged by Judge Kunkel in court this morning when the District Attorney explained that Webster now is an inmate of the county almshouse and also was a charge upon the county prior to his arrest.

Webster said he hadn't been getting enough to eat when at the almshouse last fall and so he took the corn.

"I used to go to bed hungry and get up hungry," he said, "but now I get enough to eat."

Judge Kunkel denounced the arrest of Webster and said he couldn't understand why Webster should be prosecuted on such a trifling charge at an extra expense to the county. Webster, the court remarked, had "all along been a charge upon the county" and his arrest, in event of his conviction, would have amounted to nothing more than his being removed from one county institution to another, from the almshouse to the jail.

Harrisburg Daily Independent, 31 March 1916, page 16.

The arrest of Henry Webster, whose age is not indicated here, illustrates the unfortunate circumstances and difficulties faced by many formerly enslaved persons. Webster, like all too many formerly enslaved persons, was reliant on the Dauphin County Almshouse for shelter and food. But even food at that institution was not sufficient in some instances, as Webster for forced into stealing what he needed to stave off hunger.

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