An Introduction to the Special Issue

Black History and Culture is a special edition of 15 features devoted to the history and heritage of African Americans in Pennsylvania, from the American Revolution to World War II, published December 1977.

This special issue of Pennsylvania Heritage is an attempt at an extended treatment of the life of Black people in Pennsylvania from the American Revolution to World War II. Its chief aim is to trace several aspects of Black life – economic, social, and cultural – in a single issue, and to show how changes in each of the aspects were integrally related to developing Black family and community life. More specifically, these essays attempt to make the develop­ment of independent Black expression in religion, self-help organizations, education, the press, the arts, and family life more understandable.

To do this three of the authors have placed these developments in an urban, as well as an ethnic, context. These first three essays, on the Frankford section of Philadelphia, on Harrisburg, and on Pittsburgh’s Black community, ex­plore the variation that obviously existed in the historical development of these three Black communities in the early and mid-nineteenth century. They also raise some very interesting questions: Did these communities develop differently in various cities? Did they resemble each other in terms of property ownership and residential patterns? What of the nature of Black family structure? Of political participation in times of a volatile social order? And, finally, why was Black leadership militant in one city and conservative in another? Historians and laymen alike have started asking these questions because of the “urban revolt” of the 1960’s and the constant drive for equality.

Three of the next four essays examine the self-help societies, the rise of separate Black churches, the Negro convention movement, and even the emergence of an organized Black “Underground Railway” designed to resist slavery and aid fugitive slaves. As Debra Newman shows in her essay, “They Left With the British,” Black women clearly demonstrated this attitude of self-determination and independence before they evacuated Philadelphia in 1778. This independent spirit was evident in the rise of the Black church, as Charles Coleman so ably describes it in his essay. The church became the focal point of Black communities. It housed their schools, Masonic lodges, debate societies, and committees organized to resist slavery. Indeed, in his article, “A Black Underground in Pennsyl­vania,” Charles Blockson shows that nearly all organized Black resistance to slavery revolved around the church.

The one area of retrenchment for Blacks was in the arena of employment. Early in the nineteenth century they worked at various skilled trades, but they were later driven out by new immigrants from Europe and not allowed in unions. Here, Philip Foner’s essay details this decline, carefully showing the reasons for it and the hopelessness of joining organized labor to fight job discrimination. In­deed, Black and white tabor were played off against one another.

The period of maturation in the Black community occurred at the turn of the twentieth century, especially in education, the Black press, and the arts. Harry Silcox’s investigation into education shows that industrial education was crucial to Black survival and that the Black com­munity had to surmount formidable resistance to establish its own educational integrity. Justine Rector’s essay shows how the Black press evolved as a vehicle of communication within respective communities and between them. Artistic expression lagged until the early 1900’s, as Maurice Shipley demonstrates in his essay, because there was little room in a hostile white world for it. With the coming of the Harlem Renaissance in the 1920’s, greater interest in various art forms spread to other Black communities, including those in Pennsylvania.

Black newcomers from the South initially had little in common with the residents in the already established Black communities in Pennsylvania cities. Their life in the steel mills of western Pennsylvania and their efforts to build a new life around the Black church and family is considered in an essay by Dennis Dickerson.

Charles Blockson introduces the final section on in­novative research currently being done on facets of in­dividual and family life in Black communities. Here, the four authors search for a people’s roots; this lends a sense of urgency to this section. In the first essay, “Black Sagas: How to Collect and Write Black Family History,” Mr. Blockson details how Black families can trace their roots both inside and outside of Pennsylvania. The two brief notes by Jim Drew, Ed Sims, and John Turner which follow, give advice on things to look for when researching Black family and community history. The final essay in this collection, by Carl Oblinger, combines the oral his­tories of many Black families in the South in the early twentieth century and in Harrisburg between the 1920’s and the 1940’s.


Dr. Cyril Griffith teaches African and Afro-American history at The Pennsylvania State University. His recent book was The African Dream: Martin R. Delany and the Emergence of Pan-African Thought.