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.

In April 18, 1825, a fugitive slave from Mary­land was found by his owner in Harrisburg and was imprisoned in the Dauphin County jail. A hearing on the matter was held in the courthouse that day, with Judge Bucher presiding. It took most of the day to con­vince the Judge that the slave should be returned to the custody of the slaveholder, during which time, according to the Pennsylvania Intelligencer, “a great number of blacks … armed with clubs and cudgels were in attendance.” The hearing proceeded without incident, but when it was over, and the slaveholder with his slave reached the courthouse steps, the Blacks made a rush upon them and tried to rescue the slave. One of the slaveholder’s men fired his pistol at the attackers and wounded one in the arm. At this the attack subsided and the party from Maryland went to a nearby inn – followed by the crowd of Blacks who tried again, unsuccessfully, to effect a rescue.

This was the first of two riots which occurred in Harrisburg when members of its Black community tried to make such a rescue. The second occurred twenty-five years later, in 1850. It will be shown that in both cases the rioters were men with families and with standing in the Black community, who had risked a great deal to try to gain freedom for men whom they did not even know.

The risks were indeed great. The white community of Harrisburg, like most white communities in the United States, viewed Blacks mainly as objects of patronization, fear, or ridicule. The Blacks, like their counterparts all across the country, were hemmed in by their lack of op­tions in all areas – economic, social, and political – and found themselves forced into a position of dependency upon whites. They were often the targets of harassment and violent actions. Any effort to retaliate or rebel against the caste system in which they found themselves trapped ran the risk of severe punishment, loss of economic gains, or retaliatory violence.

Why then were these men willing to incur the wrath of the white community by taking a violent stand against slavery? It may be conjectured that they felt that even though they were free, the very fact that others were en­slaved threatened that freedom and the quality of that freedom. Kidnapping of Blacks in Pennsylvania for sale into slavery was, in fact, not uncommon. But it was more than that. The free Black man had to carry the stigma of his enslaved brethren. As one Black minister wrote in 1837, “the fact of color does not cause prejudice – but slavery does.” Very possibly the men who attempted the slave rescues in Harrisburg felt that any blow which they could aim at slavery might eventually help to destroy it, thus helping to ameliorate their own conditions as well.

The purpose of this article is to explore the conditions that existed for Blacks in Harrisburg during the era of each of the riots. What was Harrisburg like in those times, what was the Black community like, who were these people who struck out against slavery, and what were the actions and reactions of the white community?

The two riots were caused by the same problem – the plight of fugitive slaves, and they were both fought by men of the same general standing in the Black community. But the conditions and the outcome of each riot were quite different, for both white and Black communities in Harris­burg had evolved and changed in the twenty-five-year period between them.

 

I

Slavery as a personal experience was still very close to the Black citizens of Harrisburg in 1825. Some had been born slaves either in Pennsylvania or elsewhere. Some were the children of slaves and were still indentured ser­vants because of this.* But the population of Blacks in Harrisburg as it grew was becoming more independent of the white community. In 1810 there were fifty-four “free negroes” and two slaves listed in the federal census. Of the “free negroes” only seven were heads of household. By 1820 there was still one slave, but of the 187 “free negroes” listed, thirty-six were heads of households which included 156 people. By 1830, there were 434 “free negroes” listed, with 103 being heads of household, which included about 419 people.

This population, with a large percentage independent enough to be living in Black-headed households and a smaller percentage attached directly to white households or places of business, was augmented by a number of Black immigrants. Most of these were probably escaped and manumitted slaves from Maryland and Virginia. Many of these new immigrants were unable to shift for themselves and were suspected of being troublemakers and of being the cause of the many incendiary fires which were occur­ring in Harrisburg at the time.

The Borough Council took steps to alleviate this prob­lem. Although there were already nightwatchmen who made their rounds and called out the hours, a “citizen’s patrol and nightwatch” was formed in May, 1820, “to apprehend all suspicious and disorderly persons.” The Pennsylvania Gazette stated that after the patrol was organized in Harrisburg, “numbers of negroes left at once.”

Not enough left, however, to allay the uneasiness of the white population, and in 1821 the Borough Council took steps to try to pinpoint the troublemakers. They passed an ordinance requiring “all free persons of color” to register with the Chief Burgess. Any non-resident who was going to be in town for more than twenty-four hours had to be registered, and any “strange person of color” who was apprehended in the borough without a certificate of regis­tration was to be taken before a justice of the peace.

There was a group of eminent men in Harrisburg, in­cluding Robert Harris, son of the founder of Harrisburg and a former slaveholder himself, who believed that the best solution to what they considered the troublesome problem of Blacks in the community would be to ship them all back to Africa. A national organization, the American Colonization Society, had been founded during this era for the purpose of setting up a colony of American Blacks in Africa. Robert Harris and some of his friends formed an Auxiliary Colonization Society of Harrisburg in the fall of 1819. In their address to the community this group stated its philosophy that freed slaves “can never be identified with our national character – nor rise to all the amenities of respected and respectable citizens.” It is likely that this was the prevailing attitude of most of the white citizens of Harrisburg about the free Black population as a whole, for it was the attitude of most of the people in the United States. Since, however, the impracticality of ridding the borough of all its Black citizens was apparent, and since many of them had proven their worth as industrious workers, some of the white com­munity had set about trying to aid the members of the Black community in their efforts to improve their lot.

There was an adult “Negro Sunday School,” which was run by the Bible Association of Harrisburg, a white charitable group. There was also, in this era, a Harrisburg Sabbath School, which ran separate classes for white and Black pupils. The Board of Managers of this Sabbath School included Mary Hanna, who had the dubious dis­tinction of being the last slaveholder in the borough of Harrisburg.

In May of 1817 an African Methodist Society was formed. At this time the Black community still numbered fewer than two hundred people, only two of whom owned land, and it was totally dependent upon the good will and capital of the white community. The chairman of the society was a white man, Or. Samuel Agnew, an important physician in town. The Rev. George Lochman, also white, a wealthy man and minister of the Zion Lutheran Church, was treasurer. The Board of Trustees, however, included both Black and white members. A building committee was formed, and the community at large was asked for donations. The project was carried to fruition, for the Oracle of Dauphin mentions an “African Church” as being one of the five church buildings in the borough in 1821.

A school for “coloured children … both bound and free” was opened in the fall of 1817. It was organized by Thomas Dorsey, secretary of the African Methodist So­ciety, who described himself as “a man of colour” in the newspaper advertisement for the school.

The white citizens of Harrisburg, however, did not always distinguish between various elements of the Black community. In spite of the fact that Harrisburg was the State capital, with a fine capitol building, solid homes, and a prosperous citizenry, it was in many ways a rough town. Boisterous gangs of boys and rowdies often roamed the streets, and the Black population was a natural tar­get for them. Blacks were harassed in the streets and in their homes. Even their church services were some­times interrupted.

The reactions of the white community to the 1825 riot show the degree to which it distrusted and feared the Black community as a whole. The riot, after all, had not been directed at the whites of Harrisburg, and yet the white inhabitants felt it necessary, once again, to form a citizens’ patrol to guard the borough’s streets. The men involved in the riot, as far as can be ascertained, were neither trouble­makers nor vagrants. Twenty men altogether were indicted. Of these, almost half were listed as heads of household with family, three in the 1820 census, four in the 1830 census, and one who appeared as head of a household in both the 1820 and 1830 censuses. One of them, James McClintock, a barber, even owned three houses, two half-lots and a stable. Another, David Jennings, was a future founder of the Wesley Union A.M.E. Church. Although eight of the rioters were released, the penalty for the rest was severe. Six (including two heads of household) got imprisonment and hard labor for a year, and six (including James McClin­tock and three other heads of household) got the same for six months. The jury was so determined to make an ex­ample of these men that they appropriated $300 for the building of a treadmill for them.

The reaction of at least some of the white community was less punitive, and, in fact, gives another clue that the attempted rescue was not just the work of troublemakers or drifters. In July, 1825, a petition “signed by a number of inhabitants of the Borough” was presented to the Borough Council requesting a pardon for the imprisoned Black men. The Council, however, did not think very highly of this idea, for its minutes wryly state that “A motion (was) resolved that the petitioners have leave to withdraw their petitions.”

Most of the local Black community was in no position to help the rioters. A petition from it would have been use­less. The financial position of its members was, in most cases, one of drastically straitened circumstances. In 1825 there were only six Black property holders. One of these did step forward. This was Ezekiel Carter, who had been head of a household and a property owner since at least 1807. He stood bail for one of the rioters, a William Grove.

The newspaper description of the trial of the rioters gives an interesting picture of black-white relationships during this time. Ezekiel Carter was about fifty years old, and had been a landowner and taxpayer with his own business in Harrisburg for eighteen years, if not longer. However, such were the conditions of the times that he referred to the Judge as “Massa” when addressing him, and the newspaper article presents him as an object of ridicule.

 

II

By 1850 the Black population of Harrisburg had grown to about nine hundred, almost five times what it had been in 1820 and almost twelve percent of the borough. Inter­estingly enough, however, at least twenty percent of laborers in the borough were Black men. These men were the vast majority of the working men in the Black community, for most avenues of economic improvement were closed to them. Aside from two coopers, four shoemakers, two teamsters, one butcher and five “oystermen,” or restaurant owners, there were no other Black tradesmen listed in the 1850 census. They did, however, have a virtual monopoly on two service occupations -all the waiters in town were Black, and so were all but two of the borough’s nineteen barbers. In the professional class there was one Black schoolteacher, and there were two doctors and four clergy­men. Not surprisingly, although the number of Black holders of real property had grown to about forty, the value of their property totaled less than one percent of the value of the real property owned by all borough resi­dents.**

The borough of Harrisburg in the 1850’s was a town of contradictory forces – of temperance societies and drunkenness, fraternal lodges and vagrants, churches and gambling dens, extreme wealth and abject poverty. The Black community, as well as the white, consisted of these contradictory elements. At this time the area north of the Capitol, including South Street, Short Street and Tanner’s Alley housed a large proportion of the Black community. (See Map) Quite a few of the most respectable members of the Black community lived and owned property there, and respected Black organizations had headquarters in this area. But it had its rougher side as well. Tanner’s Alley, for instance, was only two blocks long and on it were the A.M.E. Church and the Black Masonic Hall as well as “dens and dance halls” notorious for noise and brawling.

The respectable side of the Black population was much praised by Frederick Douglass when he came to town in 1847: “For order, neatness, and gentility they exceed any congregation of our oppressed brethern I have seen for a long time,” he wrote. The 1850’s found these people involved in many Black organizations. By 1858 there were three Black Masonic Lodges, an Odd Fellows Lodge with about one hundred members, a Good Samaritan Council of the International Order of the Daughters of Temperance, a Douglass Union, a Dorcas Society to aid the deserving needy, and a Fugitive Aid Society as well as a Black militia. A second Black Church, the Bethel, had been formed by the early 1850’s and in 1858 a “colored Presbyterian Church” had been started by a group consisting mostly of old, property-holding Harrisburg families. “Colored Camp Meetings” were held in the summer in the woods near High­spire, and the Pennsylvania Railroad ran special cars there from Harrisburg for the convenience of the Black commun­ity. By 1854 the ladies of the churches were holding suc­cessful fund-raising bazaars which were the object of a good deal of admiration. The Morning Herald described the fair held in December, 1854, at the Wesley A.M.E. Church as “well got up and admirably managed.” The newspaper also said that, “the ladies who presided at the different tables were intelligent, pleasant and sociable and thoroughly understood their business.”

The Wesley A.M.E. Church had grown out of the old white-sponsored African Methodist Society. In 1829 some property-holding members of the Black community had formed a church, which met in an old log building on the corner of Third and Mulberry streets. With a membership that grew quickly to about one-quarter of the total Black population by 1830 (115 out of 484), it was a dominant influence in the Black community. By 1839 the congregation had been able to erect the “plain but neat” brick church on the corner of Short and South streets facing into Tanner’s Alley. By 1845 it had 185 communicant members, 100 Sabbath School members and a library of 150 volumes.

This church was a center of activity for most of the clubs and improvement societies in the Black community. Frederick Douglass spoke there twice when he came to Harrisburg in 1847, and it was the location of the 1848 State Convention of Colored Citizens. It was also a center of activity in the aiding of the fugitive slaves who came to town, some to stay, and some on their way further north.

Fugitive slaves were also aided by the white abolitionists in town. The Harrisburg Anti-Slavery Society had been organized in 1836 by a group of white men. There are no membership lists to show if any Blacks were actually members, but Black and white abolitionists did work together when it came to assisting fugitives.

One of the founders of the Wesley A.M.E. Church, William M. Jones, was much admired by both white and Black abolitionists for his efficiency and cleverness in helping runaways. He was a tall, powerful, very black man who was known in town as a doctor and also as a teamster. He had been a property owner in Harrisburg since the early 1830’s and his large, rambling house on South Street was a boarding house as well as a temporary haven for fugitives. He owned two horses and a large covered wagon, which he took to Wilkes-Barre and Pottsville with loads of rags – the rags sometimes hiding fugitives from view.

William Jones was active from the beginning in the fugitive-slave case which turned into the 1850 riot. On August 17, 1850, three men, reputed to be slaves from Virginia, were arrested in Harrisburg and committed to the Dauphin County Prison on a charge of stealing two horses in Virginia. There was time for the abolitionists in Harris­burg to plan their strategies, for the hearing was held six days later. Charles Rawn and Mordecai McKinney, the two abolitionist lawyers in Harrisburg, acted as counsel for the prisoners. Among the testimony given at the hearing was that of William M. Jones, who claimed that all three defendants had been boarding at his house in Harrisburg, even before the horse theft was supposed to have’ taken place in Virginia.

The next morning, Saturday, August 24, the Judge ruled that he found no grounds for charging the prisoners with a criminal offense and ordered that they be dis­charged. By this time a large crowd of people, both Black and white, had gathered on Walnut Street in front of the jail. Rumors had circulated that the slaveholders’ posse would seize the prisoners as they were released, and that there were plans afoot to rescue the prisoners if such an attempt were to be made.

The jail door opened into a “vestibule,” a small fenced area about twelve feet square in front of the prison. It was clear that whoever got into this area first, the slave­owners or the rescuers, would have the best chance of success. But the rescuers never really had a chance. The constables and the sheriff, unable to disperse the crowd, called out the militia. Some of the Black rioters were arrested and it was the slaveholders and their posse who managed to get into the vestibule and to pounce upon the prisoners with canes and handcuffs as they came out of the jail. No attempt was made to stop them by any of the law-enforcement officers. The prisoners resisted, in the words of one observer, “like tigers” and a bloody battle ensued. Only one Harrisburg man was able to come to their aid. He was Joseph Popel, a Black man from a proper­ty-owning family that had been in Harrisburg for more than twenty years and had been among the founders of the Wesley Union A.M.E. Church. Somehow he managed to elude the police, force open the iron gates to the vestibule, and join the fray. It was, however, eight against four and soon Pope I was “bloody as a butcher.” He was partially successful, for he did manage to slip out of the vestibule with one of the prisoners. Popel was apprehended by a constable, but the slave escaped. The other two prisoners were not as lucky. Exhausted after the fight, which had lasted about fifteen or twenty minutes, they were finally handcuffed by the Virginians. They were eventually taken back to Virginia.

Of the ten Black Harrisburgers charged with “riot and assault and battery” that day, seven were heads of household with family. There was one father and son – William M. Jones and his nineteen-year-old son David. One of the other two men who were not heads of household was a waiter, Thomas Earley, who had been a delegate to the 1848 State Convention of Colored Citizens. One other rioter was a waiter, and one, Henry Bradley, was a prosperous barber. Four of the men were property owners and one more, Joseph Popel, came from a property­-holding family.

These men were treated very differently by the Judge from the rioters in the 1825 incident. All but three were allowed to post bail and go free until the November ses­sions of the court. Five of that seven were allowed to go free on their own recognizance along with two other sureties each. Most of the sureties were provided by other Black Harrisburgers, five of whom had been delegates to the 1848 convention. Three well-known local white abolitionists provided some of the bail. Little is known about the other four white men who stood bail, except that one, John Sanders, ran an inn which employed a large number of Blacks, and another, P. C. Sedgewick, rented houses to some Blacks.

In November, once again, the trial of the Black rioters was postponed, this time until the January sessions. As in 1825, a petition was submitted by local white citizens to have the case dropped, only this time the petition was heeded. The signers of the petition, who included some of the most prominent men in Harrisburg, paid the costs of the prosecution, and that put an end to the matter.

Although the rioters, this time, were supported by important members of the white community, it did not mean that they were suddenly being accepted on equal terms by them. The Black community of Harrisburg still had more than one hundred years of discrimination and segregation ahead of it. But the Black men involved in the 1850 riot did have advantages that those in 1825 lacked. There was now a larger, more respected and independent Black community, including a group which was able to back them up financially. There were members of the white community committed enough to the cause of anti-slavery to give them organized assistance, and the community at large was beginning to question the whole subject of slavery more seriously than ever before. Thus while in 1825 the rioters had been conceived of as troublesome Blacks causing a disturbance, in 1850 they were seen more for what they were – brave men fighting for a just cause.

 

* Pennsylvania had passed a manumission law in 1780. It pro­vided that children of slaves born after 1780 be indentured as servants until 28 years of age. The 1780 law required the registration of all slaves in that year. This register shows that small-scale slaveholding in the area of the future borough of Harrisburg was not uncommon.

** The author is indebted to Dr. Gerald Eggert of Pennsylvania State University for the use of his computerized summaries of occupational distribution and real wealth of the Black population of Harrisburg listed in the United States Census of 1850.

 

Mary Houts received her M.S. from the University of Michigan. She has been employed by the Harrisburg School District the last several years to develop materials on the urban environment. She is the author of When Harrisburg Was the Frontier. Currently, Mrs. Houts works as a consultant with the Division of History, Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.