a book about Harrisburg
Volume One: Men of God
Part II: Rising Waters
Chapter 6—No Haven on Free Soil 251
Part III: Approaching Storms
Volume Two: Men of Muscle
Part III: Approaching Storms
Chapter 9—Deluge 199
Part IV: Year of Jubilee
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.
In late June of 1863, Harrisburg’s African American community witnessed the influx of refugees streaming into town from the Cumberland Valley, fleeing the rapidly advancing invasion forces of General Robert E. Lee. Among the panicked and footsore mobs were hundreds of people of color like themselves who had abandoned their homes and businesses, most escaping with little more than the clothing on their backs, all in the hope of preserving the one possession that was most dear to them: freedom. This book tells the story of the struggle faced by African American people in and around Harrisburg to establish their freedom, and to maintain it over the decades against the corroding effects of racism, economic hardship, and civil war. It traces the beginnings of that community as it emerged from a legacy of slavery in the mid-1700s and follows it through the development of social institutions, ultimately achieving social and economic independence. The constant struggle by this community to defend that independence, and its resulting freedom, against everyone from paternalistic local lawmakers to predatory kidnappers, is a theme that runs throughout the book, culminating in the momentous decision in June 1863 to make a stand in Harrisburg against the Confederate invasion.
The book uses a storm metaphor to convey the story of the development of the African American community of Harrisburg from the Colonial period through June 1863. The first chapter summarizes the violent events that preceded the Civil War, from John Brown’s raid to the point of the Confederate invasion in June 1863, and the efforts of Harrisburg’s African American residents to survive the rising waters of history through their faith and sense of community. The narrative follows a group of weary African American refugees as they fled the Cumberland Valley in the wake of the invading Confederate forces, toward the bridge at Harrisburg that they hoped would lead them to a safe haven; a bridge that in the past had symbolized the line between bondage and freedom, and now was the safe passage over turbulent waters.
It then pulls back from the eve of the 1863 crisis to the earliest time that African Americans came to Harrisburg in search of safe haven, and it explores the African-born men and women who first passed through and lived here. The storm imagery is continued through the next three chapters, which detail the events and social forces that contributed to the showdown between the North and the South. Subjects include a detailed look at all aspects of the institution of slavery as it existed in Pennsylvania, and particularly in the greater Harrisburg area, an examination of the mortal dangers faced by slaves who attempted to escape their condition by flight, focusing on the grim determination that drove tens of thousands of people to risk horrifying journeys to satisfy the basic human desire for self determination, and background information on the political landscape, the legislation and the diplomatic maneuvering between North and South, settlers and Native Americans, farmers and legislators, to attempt to settle the slavery issue, and even more importantly, the fugitive slave issue.
With background information in place, the book moves on to an in-depth history of the development of Harrisburg’s free African American community during the three decades prior to the Civil War, as it experienced the exhilaration of standing up against slavery, the frightening consequences of that rebellion, and the sobering realization that only a bitter civil war would finally settle the slavery issue. Extensive attention is paid to the development of Harrisburg’s free African American community concurrent with the rise of anti-slavery sentiment in central Pennsylvania, and its bold challenge to the slave powers, which took the form of social lobbying, legislation, organizing, and, with the Underground Railroad, outright defiance of the law. A chapter is devoted to detailing the violent events of the 1850s, as the slave powers fought back against the abolitionists, and incidents in central Pennsylvania and elsewhere rapidly escalated into highly emotional retaliatory gestures. This section reaches the book’s penultimate climax with the telling of how John Brown’s raid and secession opened the floodgates that brought the deluge of two years of war to Harrisburg, bringing the reader to Harrisburg at the beginning of the year 1863.
book concludes with the events of the year 1863 as experienced by Harrisburg’s
African American residents, and concludes with their determination
to help defend Harrisburg against an expected attack by superior Confederate
forces, despite more than one hundred and fifty years of social and
political repression from the dominant culture. It brings the reader
back to the bridge into Harrisburg, where the weary fugitives are waiting
to cross, and follows the daily events to the climax of the story,
which occurs on June 29, 1863, as two companies of black volunteer
soldiers cross the bridge to help defend the city from the invading
enemy forces. An epilogue gives a summation of the events that followed
for the remainder of the war, and the effect that the decision by the
local African American community to stand and fight had on their relationship
with the dominant European American community.