Persons of Color
Can Do For Ourselves What Nobody Else Can Do For Us
Popel’s “brilliantly illuminated” house on
Filbert Street was more than a show of support for the red oilcloth-cloaked
Wide Awakes that marched past it that evening. It was a call to arms
for his fellow African American residents. Through his past actions,
Popel had clearly demonstrated that he was, and would continue to
be, an active participant in the struggle for African American rights.
He recognized the need for constant agitation in favor of economic,
political, and social equality, and he could easily see, from observing
the streets of Harrisburg, the results of apathy in his community.
had been in Harrisburg long enough to see the African American community
change from a tightly-knit, activist community, which took in strangers,
free and fugitive alike, and turned out in mass to support captured
slaves, to a community fractured by the Fugitive Slave Law and continued
racism. Instead of the continued effort toward moral improvement, advocated
so strongly for years by William Whipper and Junius Morel, he witnessed
the introduction of gambling dens and houses of prostitution in his
neighborhood as more and more strangers poured into town, and he saw
the effects of crime, liquor, and idleness on the community’s
he saw the want. It was most apparent in the faces of his impoverished
neighbors, of which there were many, and it was most keenly apparent
the following month, when the Keystone State celebrated Thanksgiving.
The popular holiday of Thanksgiving was celebrated in Harrisburg on
29 November that year, and he knew it would be celebrated in many different
ways among city residents. Even then, it was a traditional day of feasting.
Most Harrisburg residents had adopted turkey as the favored dish to
be consumed on this Thursday of thanks, although old time residents
still expressed a preference for venison. Sauerkraut dinners were available
for the German residents of the city, and the women of St. Patrick’s
Church held a fund-raising dinner at Brant’s Hall to raise money
to furnish their parsonage.
African American community sponsored a daylong “Grand Matinee” in
the Exchange Building on Walnut Street, featuring a bounty of food,
and musical entertainment from a musician identified only as “Professor
Hazard, of Philadelphia.”88 The
large variety of events and dinners available shows how the city’s
major ethnic groups had established themselves on the eve of the Civil
War. Yet even as city residents gave thanks for their blessings as
they sat in church that day, and later sat down to sumptuous feasts,
there was a keen awareness that for many, the day would be just another
day of survival.
Cinders from the Ash Heap
had arrived early, and “the markets were filled with blue-nosed
hucksters and round-shouldered buyers, whose congealed breath suggested
the idea of so many peripatetic teakettles in full boil,” observed
the Patriot and Union. “To those who have abundant means
a real wintry morning early in the season is a rather agreeable sensation.
The thermometer below the freezing point is shorn of all its terrors
when the house is close and warm, when the cellar is well-stored with
fuel, and when the bright anthracite casts its comfortable, ruddy glow
around well-furnished apartments.”
noted the editor, “winter comes in different guise to the very
poor.” During this Thanksgiving, Harrisburg’s poor, many
of whom were crammed into tight quarters in Tanners Alley and along
the various avenues and alleys in that neighborhood, would not have
a festive meal to mark the day. Their day would be spent in pursuit
of warmth and basic sustenance. The newspaper article cited “insufficient
clothing,” a “hearth without fire,” and “barefooted
children” as just a few of the miseries endured by the poor in
Harrisburg. The writer had observed shoeless “children who are
sent out abroad to rake out cinders from the ash heap…for the
means to preserve themselves from freezing.”89
misfortune was not only heartbreaking to observe, it was also highly
demoralizing to community leaders. While they could point to causes
and preach sermons, citing the evils of liquor, gambling, idleness,
or lack of parental oversight, they also sometimes felt they were butting
their heads into a brick wall. It was not a new struggle.
Have a History"
than a year earlier, at Harrisburg’s 1859 Emancipation Day, Jacob
C. White, Jr. had summoned the powerful image of a common African American
legacy in a bid to urge cooperation and mutual assistance among Harrisburg’s
decreasingly homogenous African American community. Several years before
that, Joseph Bustill had come to town at the behest of William Still
and had successfully knit the splintered anti-slavery activists back
into a cohesive organization after their network had been trampled
by Richard McAllister and Solomon Snyder.
on Bustill’s work, William Jones carried his mission of mutual
assistance back to Philadelphia, to rescue Daniel Dangerfield, but
Jones himself had been a community organizer in Harrisburg for at least
a full decade before Bustill arrived, having been an important link
between African American Underground Railroad agents and their white
counterparts. Before Doctor Jones was Junius Morel, who brought political
organization and social activism to a young, inexperienced African
American community that was struggling to find its voice.
Morel were the neighborhood leaders: Judy Richards, Edward Bennett,
Ezekiel Carter, and George Chester, all of whom had provided a much-needed
sense of community to people who felt like outsiders in the very town
that they had helped to build. It seems there had always been a need
in Harrisburg for strong community leaders, to combat the ever-present,
entropic pull of slavery and racism, to pull the community back together
every few years. In 1860, it was Joseph Popel’s turn, even if
briefly, to remind his neighbors that they had to work together.
need for African American unity had been voiced by William Still at
an Emancipation Day rally earlier that year. Speaking to a crowd at
Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Still explained that Pennsylvania’s
free African American residents had a moral responsibility to advocate
strongly for themselves and for their brothers and sisters still in
bondage, and especially to “devise some plan by which we can
more successfully bring about practical cooperation among ourselves,
against every phase of oppression.” Pennsylvania’s blacks,
he argued, “number a larger free proscribed population than any
other Northern State.” Furthermore, this large free population
was under the stress of being bordered by three slaveholding states,
which regularly sent slaveholders, under the guise of the Fugitive
Slave Law, to commit “continual outrages.”
of this proximity to slavery, Still noted, “our movements and
actions are daily watched by all classes…Hence, in assuming an
earnest, resolute and practical ground in favor of freedom, we could
not fail to strike most effective blows against oppression.” Pennsylvania’s
African Americans, Still reasoned, could, and must set the example,
following the lead of, and in homage to, fugitive slaves who risked
their lives to take their freedom. Those who arrived regularly on the
Underground Railroad had not waited for their masters to set them free,
and if the free African American citizens of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh,
Lancaster, and Harrisburg were to obtain real and lasting change, they
could not afford to sit idly on the sidelines and wait for white lawmakers
to act. With “wise and determined effort,” Still concluded, “we
can do for ourselves what nobody else can do for us.”90
sentiment fit well with the speech delivered by Jacob C. White, Jr.
the year before, which had been cheered by the uniformed and armed
Henry Highland Garnet Guards, and although the Garnet Guards were no
longer marching in parades in 1860, having been muscled out by the
torch-bearing Wide Awakes, the martial spirit and the dedication to
the cause was still there.
had called upon African American memory as he listed the many conflicts
in which blacks had fought for this country, and William Still reinforced
White’s summons a year later in his Kennett Square speech by
asserting, “We have a history.” He wanted only to know, “with
regard to the momentous question of our liberty,” what his fellow
African American citizens were going to do about it. Joseph Popel,
who was probably aware of Still’s speech through the resources
of Joseph Bustill, responded to Still in a way that he hoped was equally
unambiguous and inspiring to his neighbors. His patience in the face
of continued hunger, kidnapping, and ignorance was at an end. Joseph
Popel’s impatience with apathy and his affirmation of self-reliance
was brilliantly conveyed with a blazing multitude of candles in the
windows of his house on this rally night.
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88. Ibid., 29
November 1860; Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 28 November 1860.
and Union, 27 November 1860.
Anti-Slavery Standard, 18 August 1860.