Features appear in each issue of Pennsylvania Heritage showcasing a variety of subjects from various periods and geographic locations in Pennsylvania.

One of the more enduring outcomes of “Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common,” the annual theme adopted by the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) for 2010, is a history study that examines more than three centuries of African American life, culture, and experience in the Keystone State. This expansive document explores, in detail, the daily life, work, struggles, and ideals of generations of African Americans in Pennsylvania, beginning in the late seventeenth century.

Awarded a Preserve America Grant in 2006, PHMC worked closely with the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) to develop this exhaustive chronicle of African Americans in Pennsylvania and to conduct a survey of the history, changing demographics, and built environment of eight geographically and economically distinct Black communities in the Commonwealth.

The history portion of the study was written by historian Craig Stutman and the survey reports were prepared by Shelby Weaver-Splain, preservation consultant, Keystone Preservation Group.

The context study delves deeply into social, cultural, economic, industrial, political, and religious history as it probes the people, places, and events that make Pennsylvania’s African American historical legacy so rich and varied. In addition to the extensive historical narrative which provides background, the surveys of the eight communities serve as templates for individuals and organizations wishing to investigate their own historical
and cultural resources, especially for proposing properties for state historical markers and nominating buildings, structures, sites, objects, and districts to the National Register of Historic Places, programs administered for the Commonwealth by PHMC.

The study opens with an extensive discussion of slavery and resistance to it by African Americans. The introductory chapter offers an examination of the beginnings of the slave trade and how it impacted individuals of African descent living in Pennsylvania, followed by an explanation — supplemented with examples — of how they dealt with the “peculiar institution” (a euphemism for slavery that grew popular during the second half of the nineteenth century). Slavery as commerce is explored in-depth, with a summary of its rise and fall in Pennsylvania. Among the more emotionally charged issues in chapter one are the examples of resistance and the harrowing experiences of runaway slaves. By examining the development and legacy of slavery as an institution, the study also draws into consideration the overt actions of slaves who carried out revolts and obstructed or sabotaged the workplaces where they were forced to labor. The study includes a number of advertisements that appeared in the late eighteenth century in the Pennsylvania Gazette, published in Philadelphia, for both the sale of slaves and for the return of fugitives.

Chapter two, addressing the quest by African Americans for civil and political rights, provides a broad look at the evolution of rights for African Americans by examining the practices endorsed or embraced by state government from the eighteenth through the twentieth centuries. The dynamic role of African American men and women laborers in Pennsylvania — as slaves, indentured servants, or free citizens — in the areas of agriculture, iron-making, domestic work, steel, coal, brick-making, and glass, are chronicled in chapters three and four. These chapters explore the intricacies of the lives and experiences of African American workers and the geographic distribution of these laborers and their workplaces. These sections also address the changing workforce and workplace and how they were affected by migration and industrialization. The discussion concludes with the ways in which individuals fought for a safer and fairer place in which to work.

The context study addresses the growth and spread of the independent African and African American church in Pennsylvania, with an emphasis on the African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church, the AME Zion Church, the Union AME Church, the African Presbyterian Church, and the African American Baptist Church. The narrative is brought to life by numerous biographies, excerpts from autobiographies, and writings of individuals, many of whom played pivotal roles in the origin and development of Black churches. The role of the Black church in political and social activism is also explored, in addition to significant ecclesiastical and secular documents issued by specific denominations. The history of the Black church is further illuminated by interviews with residents of selected communities whose observations add immeasurably to the scope and depth of the study. There is, naturally, discussion of Philadelphia’s venerable Mother Bethel AME Church, but there is fair coverage of other churches and congregations in Pennsylvania.

The educational history of Pennsylvania’s African Americans is charted by the evolution of African American secular, philanthropic, and religious-based educational initiatives and by analyzing the many attempts of the Black community to secure elementary and secondary schools and institutions of higher education. Many of the struggles and triumphs in obtaining a fair and equitable education, such as the laborious and time-consuming desegregation of public schools, are discussed in detail. Special emphasis is given to the African American independent school movement and the establishment of two of the Commonwealth’s historically Black colleges and universities, including Lincoln University of Pennsylvania and Cheyney University of Pennsylvania.

The context study concludes with chapters examining the history and legacy of African American benevolent, mutual aid, fraternal, and sororal (or sister) societies, such as the Masons, Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, Knights of Pythias, Independent Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks of the World, Order of the Eastern Star, Pennsylvania Federation of Negro Women’s Clubs, and the Ruth L. Bennett Improvement Club.

Case studies of selected organizations include discussion of activities for the betterment of its members and the community at large, such as literary and book groups, scholarships, and financial assistance.

The study also broaches the subjects of recreation and sports, illuminating how African American males founded their own baseball teams and created leagues in Pennsylvania.

“Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common” is invaluable because of the broad survey of the Commonwealth’s African American history and culture, also because it specifically incorporates surveys of the eight communities, which include Bedford, Bedford County; Coatesville, Chester County; Meadville, Crawford County; Mount Union, Huntingdon County; Stroudsburg, Monroe County; Washington, Washington County; Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County; and Williamsport, Lycoming County. The survey reports include revealing data regarding African American residents, such as the types of occupations, social, benevolent, and fraternal organizations, educational opportunities, census reports, significant dates, and an analysis of historic architecture. The framework of the survey reports makes them ideal as templates for individuals, organization, and communities wishing to study their towns and cities.

The work includes footnotes, an extensive bibliography, and photographs.