Our Documentary Heritage showcases holdings drawn from the vast collections of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

The John Strohm Papers, 1816– 1874, Manuscript Group 121, held by the Pennsylvania State Archives, contains the correspondence of John Strohm (1793–1884), a Lancaster County Whig who served in the Pennsylvania House of Representatives from 1831 to 1833, was a state senator from 1834 to 1842, and served two terms in Congress, from 1845 to 1849. Among this correspondence is a letter written by African American businessman Stephen Smith (circa 1795–1873), dated January 15, 1836, reminding Senator Strohm of recent riots that had occurred over three nights in August 1834 at Columbia, Lancaster County.

During the unrest, a mob of white men drove African American residents from their homes into the surrounding countryside. On August 23, 1834, a group of white working men in Columbia demanded that African American property owners living in the community sell all of their holdings and a second wave of riot — reported in the Columbia Spy on October 4, 1834 — destroyed Smith’s Front Street office. All eight white men arrested and charged in the rioting were subsequently acquitted. In his letter, Smith asked Strohm to use his influence to protect the rights of free Blacks in Pennsylvania at a time when their right to vote was coming under increasing attack. Despite Smith’s efforts, Black voters were disenfranchised when the words “white freeman” were inserted into the voting clause of Pennsylvania’s new constitution that took effect on October 9, 1838.

A former slave of a Revolutionary War officer and congressman Brevet Major Thomas Boude (1752–1822), of Columbia, Smith purchased his freedom in 1816 and established himself in the lumber business. By 1833, he had acquired considerable real estate holdings in Columbia and was, by far, the wealthiest of the community’s thirty-five Black property owners at the time. In 1842, he expanded his business holdings to Philadelphia, placing William Whipper (1804–1876) in charge of his Columbia operations. By 1849, the firm of Smith and Whipper owned twenty-two rail cars that transported thousands of tons of coal and 2.25 million board feet of lumber annually. The partners owned large tracts of land in Canada and Pennsylvania, a steamship on Lake Erie, and lumberyards. Smith also owned fifty-two brick houses in Philadelphia. Upon his death in 1873, he left the greater portion of his estate to the Home for Aged and Infirm Colored Persons and the Zion Mission, both in Philadelphia, and African American churches in Chester, Delaware County, and Cape May, New Jersey, where he owned a summer house.

The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission has adopted “Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common” as its annual theme for 2010.