a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Seven

Pursuing a Course Unwise, Fanatical, and Disorganizing: Harrisburg's White Anti-Slavery Activists

In the summer of 1839, the multitalented publisher, abolitionist, and minister, Charles Bennett Ray, visited his learned friend Morel in Harrisburg. In a letter to his partner, co-owner of the abolitionist newspaper Colored American, Phillip A. Bell, Ray noted that Harrisburg suits my notion better than any I had seen since my leaving Philadelphia. During a stroll through town, Ray and Junius Morel decided to visit the Capitol, intent upon obtaining the ear of some state legislators, but found it closed and vacant, the lawmakers having deserted town for cooler locales. So instead, the abolitionist publisher turned his attention to arranging a series of meetings with local African American citizens in the hopes of obtaining subscribers to his newspaper, which was perpetually in need of funding. He was optimistic of success, having previously described Harrisburg s black citizenry as quite unlike the people in most other places; they exhibited a very intelligent look, and a cheerful countenance, indications of a better heart. Morel helped to arrange meetings on two successive nights, at which Ray could preach, lecture, and make appeals for subscribers. The activist minister, however, was sorely disappointed, securing but ten subscribers among a population of some hundreds from his public appeals in town. Ray expressed his dismay to Bell, asking:

How is this? The same reason which apply to our people in this state, more than in any other, in which I have traveled. A want of interest among the more intelligent, in the Abolition cause; for in almost exact proportion, as you find them engaged in this, you find them interested in the moral elevation of our people, and in the success of the Colored American. There are however a few choice spirits here and most of them either had, or did subscribe for the paper. I found a few very choice white abolitionists, some of whom rendered the paper some assistance.41

Among the few choice spirits, Ray would have counted Junius Morel and a few of his neighbors, some of whom already received the Colored American. The failure of Ray to convince more of Harrisburg s African American residents to buy subscriptions to his newspaper, however, does not rule out an interest, as he concluded, in abolition. It more probably speaks to the severe lack of wealth among these residents, who only a few months before, had pooled their money to purchase a lot from the Forster estate, at the corner of Tanner Alley and South Street, and were in the process of erecting a new building to house the growing Wesley A.M.E. Church. They had outgrown the small log building at Third and Mulberry, and, once again under the visionary leadership of founding pastor David Stevens, they saw a new opportunity in the growth of the African American community on the narrow streets east of the Capitol building.

But money, as always, was tight, and the new building project had undoubtedly sapped their savings. The previous minister, Jacob D. Richardson, had begun his school for African American children in part to supplement his meager pay. Even Junius Morel, who championed support for the abolitionist newspapers, was frequently too cash-poor to afford a subscription.42

Morel s more lasting and important contribution, however, was in introducing Ray, and other African American anti-slavery activists, to Harrisburg s few very choice white abolitionists. This alliance, which had apparently begun within a year of Morel s arrival in Harrisburg, was to prove very fruitful in the coming decade as both black and white activists scrambled to counter a growing anti-abolitionist sentiment in the town.


"A Few Choice Spirits"
The Alexander Graydon Family

Among the white abolitionists in Harrisburg who were leading the charge against slavery were several children of the William Graydon family, and in particular Graydon s oldest son, Alexander. Few families in Harrisburg at the time held more influence, or were more respected. Alexander was named either for his grandfather Alexander, or for his uncle, the Revolutionary War hero Captain Alexander Graydon, who had commanded a company of the Third Pennsylvania Regiment of the Line at the battle of Fort Washington in New York. Captain Graydon s troops were inexperienced city boys from Philadelphia who found themselves facing the fearsome veterans of the Forty-Second Highlander Regiment the Black Watch Regiment. It was an uneven match from the start, and Graydon and most of his troops were captured and spent considerable time on British prison ships anchored in New York Harbor. After the war he found himself drawn to the Pennsylvania interior, first to Reading, where he resumed his study of the law, and then further west, where a new town was rising under my eyes on the magnificent banks of the Susquehanna. 43

Alexander Graydon relocated to the newly established town of Harrisburg, along with his brother William, also an accomplished lawyer, and they both took leading roles in the development of the town. Alexander was the first county prothonotary, and William was admitted to the bar in 1786, but he also served on the town council, as a notary public, and as town burgess. William married and raised a family in Harrisburg, and it was some of his children, rather than their father, who took an interest in abolitionist philosophies.

This interest is ironic, because they were raised in a family that held and used slave labor. Their uncle, Captain Alexander Graydon, owned at least one slave in Dauphin County as late as 1798.44 Perhaps even more ironic is the fact that their family position and wealth was derived at least in part from the profits of the Philadelphia mercantile firm of Caleb Emerson and Alexander Graydon, their grandfather, whose business in the late 1730s and early 1740s included the sale of African slaves. Those profits helped to finance the fine education and legal training of Alexander, Jr., and William, their father.

Regardless of their slaveholding heritage, the children of William Graydon, grandchildren of part-time slave merchant Alexander Graydon, embraced anti-slavery in their beliefs, and demonstrated it in their actions. These beliefs and deeds, however, despite their family s position of respect in the community, would ultimately lead to conflict and, for some, a bitter rift with many of their Harrisburg neighbors and family members.

The younger generation of Graydons became associated with another Harrisburg family, the McKinneys, through two marriages. Mordecai McKinney, a young lawyer, was probably first known to the Graydon children through their father, who was also a lawyer. Mordecai McKinney was born in Middletown, Dauphin County, and studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle, later studying law under Judge Stephen Duncan of Carlisle. He was admitted to the Dauphin County Bar in 1817, the same year that his father moved the family to Harrisburg, and the younger McKinney quickly began to distinguish himself in Pennsylvania's legal community. In 1827, Governor Shulze appointed him an associate judge of Dauphin County. During his career as a jurist, McKinney published several volumes of legal references, including The Pennsylvania Justice of the Peace in 1839.

Mordecai's parents were Mordecai and Mary "Polly" Chambers, and his grandfather was also named Mordecai McKinney. The father, Mordecai McKinney, was a merchant who owned a store in Middletown. At some point, the elder McKinney owned several slaves, including at least one in Dauphin County. He registered the child of a slave in Harrisburg, according to the state abolition law, a boy named Dick. His son, Mordecai McKinney, the Harrisburg, lawyer and judge, would have therefore grown up with slavery. His mother, Mary, was the daughter of Colonel William Chambers of Middleton Township, Cumberland County, who registered at least seven slaves at Carlisle during his lifetime. Like the Graydon children, who grew up with slaves in their household and became abolitionists, Mordecai also turned away from slavery as a young adult.

Mordecai McKinney came to Harrisburg as a young lawyer, only twenty-one years of age, in 1817. It was probably at this point that he made the acquaintance of the elder William Graydon, who was also a practicing lawyer in the town. At least one of Mordecai s younger sisters, Mary Ann, was enrolled at the Presbyterian Sabbath School, at which William Graydon s daughter Rachel was a teacher. Whether through a professional association with her father, or through participation at the Presbyterian School, Mordecai was soon introduced to the lively and scholarly Rachel, and in a few years, the two were married.

At about the same time, the two families experienced a second marriage by which they were further bonded. Rachel Graydon s older brother, Alexander, had married in 1818, but his young wife, Sarah Geddes, tragically died a year later, probably due to complications from childbirth, as her death occurred eight days after the birth of the couple s first child, a son. In 1822, Alexander remarried, and chose a younger sister of Mordecai McKinney, Jane Chambers McKinney. The two shared many views, including a hatred of slavery. Like her brother Mordecai, Jane came to abhor the realities of slaveholding after listening to stories told to her by two of the family s slaves in Wilmington, known to her by the names Daddy Jack and Old Sackey. Years later, Jane related to her own children the sad stories she had heard from these two slaves:

Two old slaves, Daddy Jack and Old Sackey were her special friends and she loved to go to their cabins and listen to the weird stories of their early lives. Old Sackey was a king s daughter in Africa. She was playing on the beach one day with other girls, when the white man came and stole her away and thrust her into the horrible hold of a slave ship. She could never speak of the awful experience without trembling all over, and to the day of her death she never smiled!

Whether the stories related to Jane and her siblings by the McKinney family slaves were true or not is less important than the effect they had on the children. Jane s daughter Mary Ellen later wrote, My mother attributed much of her own horror of slavery to the impressions made on her childish mind by these recitals. 45 Although many of the Graydon and McKinney children held distinct anti-slavery views, the attitudes of Jane and her new husband Alexander were perhaps the most extreme. They became two of Harrisburg s leading white anti-slavery activists, and were the ideological poles to which those of like mind were drawn.


Like Minded Individuals:
Other Harrisburg Abolitionists

There were a precious few other Harrisburg abolitionists. James Wallace Weir began with a career in printing, having learned the trade from John S. Wiestling, who acquired the newspaper Pennsylvania Intelligencer. Weir left the printing trade for a career in banking, at which he spent the rest of his professional life. A strongly religious and moral man, James W. Weir was appointed in 1835 as superintendent of the Presbyterian School in Harrisburg, a position that brought him into close association with the Graydon and McKinney families, in which he found kindred spirits for the cause of abolition.46

James older brother, John Andrew Weir, was also an ardent supporter of anti-slavery causes. John Andrew was a carpenter and coach maker, and later opened a hardware store in town. He married Catherine Wiestling, daughter of printer John S. Wiestling, and became active in politics under Governor Joseph Ritner.

Another key figure in Harrisburg anti-slavery circles was the Connecticut Yankee William Root, who moved to town in 1834 to peddle tin and iron implements. Root built up his trade to the point at which he, like his friend John Weir, could open a hardware store. Coming to Harrisburg at about the same time was Nathan Stem, who took up the position of Rector of the newly built St. Stephen s Episcopal Church. The Reverend Stem came to Harrisburg after resigning his post in October 1831 as Rector of a pair of Episcopal churches, to which he split his duties, in Delaware County, Ohio.


The Preacher Abolitionists

Though he arrived in town from Ohio, Nathan Stem was actually a Pennsylvania native, having been born in East Nantmeal, Chester County, in 1804. He completed his primary education in Pennsylvania and studied for the clergy in Alexandria, Virginia. His first post was in Delaware, Ohio, where he was married in June 1831 to Sarah May Potts, of his native Chester County. Stem and his new wife arrived in Harrisburg in March 1832.47 Here they soon sought out the few local people who shared their abolitionist views, and although they were newcomers to the town, Reverend Stem made up for his lack of social connections with an energy and drive that served the anti-slavery cause well.

Nathan Stem was one of only two white ministers in Harrisburg to advocate for the rights of slaves. The other was John Winebrenner, an iconoclastic minister of the Reformed Church, whose stringent egalitarian beliefs alienated many of his congregants and led to the creation of a brand new church in Harrisburg.

Like many of Harrisburg s abolitionists, Winebrenner was born into a slaveholding family, in Frederick County, Maryland. He took a strong interest in the ministry as a young man, and studied at Dickinson College in Carlisle. He was ordained into the German Reformed Church in Hagerstown, Maryland, and in 1820 was given charge of four rural churches in central Pennsylvania: Salem Church, on Chestnut Street in Harrisburg; Wenrich s Church, near Linglestown; Shoop s Church, which was in present day Colonial Park; and Salem Church in Cumberland County, now Historic Peace Church.

The Harrisburg Salem Church was not yet built when Winebrenner arrived in town, and it was largely because of his fundraising and organizing talents that the local congregation was able to construct a new church building at the corner of Third and Chestnut streets in 1822. There were, however, strong differences of religious opinion and style between John Winebrenner and many in his flock. He was a young, ideologically religious scholar, who brought to his post many new ideas regarding how the church should be managed, and he began making decisions that were normally made by the vestry, much to the vestry s dissatisfaction. He upset his congregants by preaching at Methodist churches, and by inviting non-ordained visitors to preach from his pulpit. Perhaps most upsetting to the highly traditional members of his local church, though, was his revivalist style, with its attendant shouting, noise, and seeming lack of structure.

By April 1823, the Harrisburg church had seen enough of his leadership to advocate for change. Taking matters into their own hands, the church vestrymen locked the doors to Salem Church one Sunday, and when Reverend Winebrenner arrived for services, he found himself locked out, with a large hostile crowd in front of the church on Chestnut Street. Winebrenner took his few loyal followers to the river, and there, in front of John Harris grave, he held an outdoor service in his own style.48

When it became apparent that he was not going to be able to wrestle back control of his post, John Winebrenner began holding independent services in various places, including the county courthouse, the market sheds on the square, and in the lumberyards next to the canal, just east of Market Street. A formal church building, called Union Bethel, was constructed on Mulberry Street in 1827, and in 1830, John Winebrenner had himself publicly baptized by immersion in the Susquehanna River by a local Brethren in Christ minister, Jacob Erb. This highly public act followed his numerous successful revivals around the Harrisburg area in the late 1820s, at which he organized the selection of teaching elders, who took on a pastoral function.

In October 1831, several of Winebrenner s teaching elders met in Harrisburg, after agreeing on some basic theological principles the year before, and officially formed the Church of God. This new church was associated with social activism, and embraced such controversial topics as peace, temperance, free education, and anti-slavery. It was also not segregated by race. As a moral reformer, John Winebrenner had earlier been active in distributing religious materials among Harrisburg s poor, including its African American citizens, and had helped to operate an African American Sunday School. He welcomed African Americans to worship with him at his revival meetings, and his church publicly baptized African Americans.49

These interracial connections would serve the anti-slavery movement in Harrisburg well, as John Winebrenner s followers worked not only to further the acceptance of anti-slavery philosophies, but worked also for the acceptance of African Americans as brethren. It was not, however, the only place in which the two races cooperated on this issue during this early period. As was noted earlier, Junius Morel sought white patrons in Harrisburg to support his favorite black anti-slavery publishers, and George Chester encouraged white abolitionists to use his oyster cellar, where they could peruse abolitionist publications, for meetings both public and private.

There was a second less known but strong connection between activist George Chester and Harrisburg s white abolitionists, though, which is not apparent from the public proclamation issued by local black abolitionists in 1831. That connection was made by Chester s wife, Jane, who in 1825, just prior to her marriage to George, took a job as a maid in the household of Alexander and Jane Graydon. Not long after that, she moved to a housekeeping job with Graydon s sister Rachel and brother-in-law Mordecai McKinney, thus having established a trusted relationship with two of the town s most ardent white abolitionist families.

By the mid 1830s, Harrisburg s white and African American abolitionists were poised to begin their public agitation on this very contentious issue. Though the initial public events were held in separate racial spheres during the next decade, the quiet cooperation had already bonded them in a common cause that would be vigorously attacked by their ideological opponents as a course unwise, fanatical, and disorganizing.

Previous | Next


41. Colored American, 31 August 1839.

42. In December 1837, Morel lamented to the editors of the Colored American that he was bound down in deep sorrow, because my pecuniary resources as yet would not enable me to give that support to it my heart desires. On 15 April 1838, Morel wrote to Charles B. Ray, Some kind friend has caused the Colored American (I love the name!) to be sent to my address. Should they be known to you, be so kind as to give my sincere thanks and warmest gratitude to him, or them, for the very especial favor conferred on me. Colored American, 9 December 1837, 3 May 1838.

43. Graydon, Memoirs of His Own Time, 338.

44. U.S. Direct Tax of 1798, Dauphin County.

45. Mary Ellen Graydon Sharpe, A Family Retrospect (Indianapolis, Hollenbeck Press, 1909), p. 45-46.

46. Stewart, Centennial Memorial, 230.

47. Moses Auge, Lives of the Eminent Dead and Biographical Notices of Prominent Living Citizens of Montgomery County, Pa. (Norristown, PA: M. Auge, 1879), 143.

48. J. Harvey Gossard, John Winebrenner: Founder, Reformer, and Businessman, in John M. Coleman, John B. Frantz, and Robert G. Crist, eds., Pennsylvania Religious Leaders, Pennsylvania Historical Studies no. 16 (University Park: The Pennsylvania Historical Association, 1986), 87-89.

49. Ibid., 91-94.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

2010 George F. Nagle



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.

About the AP | Contact AP | Mission Statement | 20th Century History