Documents for Freedom and Equality of African Americans

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

One of the primary responsibilities of the Pennsylvania State Archives is to maintain and make available records that document and safeguard the civic and property rights of Pennsylvanians. Many records document the struggle for freedom and equality of the Commonwealth’s African Americans.

As early as the seventeenth century, some Pennsylvanians were concerned with the manner in which elements of the population were being treated. On April 28, 1688, four men, led by Francis Daniel Pastorious, mounted the “Germantown Protest,” the first public outcry in North America against slav­ery. Despite this early effort to ensure the civil rights of all Pennsylvanians, nearly one hundred years would pass before the 1780 Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was approved.

The Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery was a major step in the process to ensure the freedom and equal­ity of the Commonwealth’s African American citizens, but the struggle would not be easy and blacks continued to suffer discrimination and segregation. A provision of the State Constitution of 1838 restricted the privilege of voting to “white” freemen. Continuing prejudice is documented by a petition submitted in 1865 to the state legislature demanding fair and equal access to the public transit system in Philadelphia. Later efforts by state government to end discrimination and segregation included the restoration, with the passage of the Constitution of 1873, of black suffrage, the passage of laws, in 1881, ending segregation in public schools, and a civil rights act of 1887 out­lawing “Jim Crow” laws, a euphemism for legal segregation. Despite these legislative efforts animosity remained.

State government continued to play an important role in the struggle, evidenced by letters to Governor George M. Leader concerning the integration ofLevittown (see “Breaking Down Barriers” by Daisy Myers, with context by Linda Shopes, in the summer 2002) and Governor William W. Scranton’s proclamation on voting rights in the South.

Guide to African American Resources at the Pennsylvania State Archives by Ruth E. Hodge, published in 2000 by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, provides a comprehensive perspective of the African American experience in Pennsylvania as illustrated through documentary evidence. The papers of the Commonwealth’s recent governors provide an overview and prominent examples of the struggle for racial equality since the 1950s. Microfilm and original copies of slave returns and registers can be found among the records of the county pro­thonotaries and the clerks of courts at the State Archives.

The real treasure trove of infor­mation on African Americans in the Keystone State is found in the “rou­tine” records created by state agen­cies in the delivery of a wide variety of economic, social, educational, regulatory, and public safety services to all the Common- wealth’s citizens.