Persons of Color
The Negroes Have Become Troublesome
Harrisburg’s African American
community responded cautiously to all these major changes in their hometown.
Most of them had supported, in spirit if not in votes, the Republican
candidates through the elections. They had followed the secession crisis
closely in local and national newspapers, and like most people in the
country, had hailed the coming of war with naïve élan. Very
quickly, though, they saw the need to examine the issues rationally.
This was to be a war in which they had much at stake, yet they were to
be severely limited in their participation, such that they were little
more than bystanders. Many felt confused, frustrated, and angry at being
denied the chance to defend their country, while others pointed out that
many in the government did not even consider them citizens.
was also the vague idea that this was the start of the bloodshed predicted
by the martyred John Brown—the final battle for freedom—but
instead of a sense of glory, they felt only helplessness. They debated,
in public halls and private homes, what changes the approaching hostilities
would bring, and they turned to their church leaders for guidance and,
a rented room on the second floor of a building at River Alley and
Walnut Street, the congregants of the Second Presbyterian Church of
Harrisburg gathered at seven p.m. on a Sunday evening in search of
answers to those
questions. Their pastor, the Reverend Charles W. Gardiner, was now
about eighty years old, and this was one of the smallest congregations
ever led, having been the leader of much larger churches across the
East Coast. The good reverend understood, however, that with all
numbers were always secondary to faith. He had prepared a sermon
on the “Present
he meant to address their fears and worries. Across the city, other
African American congregations were also sitting down
to hear their pastors hold forth on the crisis at hand.
was the emotion of the hour, it seemed, and nothing stoked fear like
rumors. On the same day that the Reverend Gardiner was preaching
to his small Walnut Street congregation about how the coming of
civil war to their country might affect them, white folks in Gettysburg
were working themselves up over a perennial fear: unruly blacks.
that the national emergency had unleashed local communities of
to rise up against local whites swept through many Pennsylvania
communities in the border counties.
residents awoke on Monday morning to an issue of the Compiler filled
with war news, including detailed accounts of the
of Fort Sumter, the burning of the federal arsenal at Harpers
Ferry by United
States troops and their subsequent withdrawal to Carlisle, and
the feared capture of the national capital by rebel forces. As
not alarming enough to local residents, the newspaper also reported, “The
negroes at Shippensburg and Chambersburg have become troublesome—their
object: being plunder—and that several arrests have been
comfort may have been taken by readers from another blurb that
are being taken here to organize a home guard.”133
news of potential uprisings grew and reached Harrisburg within a day.
Suddenly the same “troublesome Negroes” were imagined
to be plotting a violent coup in the streets and alleys of local African
American neighborhoods. By Thursday, the paranoia had reached such a
level that the Patriot and Union devoted two full columns to the presence
of “Secret Organizations of Colored Persons” in the capital
The supposed existence
of an association of the kind in this city caused an intense excitement
a day or two ago. It was alleged that meetings
were held nightly in a hall in Tanner’s alley, and that marching
could be heard inside. It appears, too, that some one overheard a conversation
between two darkies in a bye-place, when one of them remarked “things
is working—our time had come at last, and we’ll soon
be able to revenge ourselves on some who have been grinding us in
The rumor which reached
the Mayor in regard to a supposed secret organization among the
people, induced him to send a police force, who reconnoitered
Short street, Tanner’s alley and other places. They thoroughly
searched the hall but found no arms in it, save a Tyler’s sword,
so that the rumor, so far as Harrisburg is concerned, is probably
unfounded. But if true, such arrangements are now made as to give
our citizens assurances
“Such arrangements” included the organization of a Committee
of Public Safety whose duty it was “to adopt such civic and military
measures as may appear necessary to insure the safety and well-being
of the city of Harrisburg and vicinity.” The organizational meeting
was presided over by Judge John J. Pearson, with help from the old campaigner
Augustus L. Roumfort.
prior, as a citizen of Philadelphia, Roumfort had been one of the signers
of an open letter to Pennsylvania Governor William F.
Johnston protesting the lack of protection from the “insurrectionary
movement” of African Americans in Christiana following the death
of slave owner Edward Gorsuch. Now he was in Harrisburg, helping to
assure that such a possibility could not occur here.
men appointed to the Committee were some of the most influential men
in town, according to the published roster, which included many
family names familiar to modern Harrisburg residents: Forster, Berryhill,
Dock, Kunkel, Harris, Lingle, Boas, Hummel, Alricks, and Hamilton.
No African American residents were appointed to the committee. It
that any African Americans were present at, or were even made aware
of, the organizational meeting in Brant’s Hall.135 Had
any sought to participate, they likely would have been barred from
over black retributive violence had risen to such a level in Harrisburg
with the start of the war that even those persons
sympathetic toward the African American community were affected.
Telegraph editor George Bergner sought out “an old and respectable colored
resident of Harrisburg” in order to question him about the supposed “report
of an intended outbreak among the colored population, after the soldiers
Bergner’s source was unidentified, but the man reportedly reassured
the editor that “no such intention could possibly exist without
his knowledge.” The description, status, and connections of the
editor’s source suggest that it might have been either William
Jones, one of the older Bennett men, or possibly even Fleming Mitchell.
Bergner tried to comfort his readers by bragging that he “had no
fear of the threat,” but betrayed his mistrust by adding, “The
home guard will be on duty for any emergency.”136
To add further
insult to the local lack of trust, Harrisburg African Americans must
have been mortified to see a version of
Negroes” story make its way into the national newspapers a few
days later. The New York Times, in a story datelined in Harrisburg, printed
the sensational headlines, “Stampede of Slaves from Maryland.” The
accompanying story reported that “a great stampede of negroes” had
descended upon the southern counties of Adams, York, and Franklin,
and that the town of Hanover was attacked by a force of Maryland
upon recovering some of the fugitive slaves.
story was carried in the New York Herald, with the additional alarming
news that “fear has become general in the border counties
of Maryland that the departure of the whole slave population is imminent.”137 In
addition to a general uprising of local blacks, whites in
south central Pennsylvania could now also fear an invasion
of Southern slaves as well
as the prospect of being caught in the crossfire between
warring slave catchers and fugitive slaves.
disheartening thing about these news stories to the African American
residents of Harrisburg, Gettysburg,
was the ease and rapidity with which they made the jump
to newspaper headlines. Although the investigative nature
of many small town newspaper editors was low—the need to fill column space often
trumped their desire and ability to produce verifiable, interesting local
news stories—keen competition and political rivalries
generally forced them to give their stories at least a
quick scan to ferret out
potentially embarrassing or blatantly false material. That
meager filter seems to have failed in this case. Events
were unfolding so rapidly that
many newspapers skipped the journalistic once-over and
simply published everything that came their way, regardless
of how outlandish it seemed.
the idea that local populations of African Americans were secretly
scheming to overthrow local order apparently
did not seem
so outlandish to many whites, and that was the problem.
Even though Harrisburg
was a Northern town that elected Abraham Lincoln to the
presidency and was supposedly in sympathy with Southern
reality was much
different. White Harrisburg residents had always been
neutral, at best, if not outright hostile, toward local anti-slavery
efforts, and had
a similar mindset regarding the African Americans who
streets. Local Republicans suppressed those feelings,
at least publicly,
during the election of 1860, partly to support the party
platform and partly to taunt Democrats.
But the stress
of war brought buried hatreds and long-held fears to the surface, and
in no time at all, rumors of
race wars were
given the appearance
of truth when they were printed in black and white
for all to read. Little had changed, it seemed, since 1756,
Speaker of the
Isaac Norris, warned Lieutenant Governor Robert Morris
Slave may be reckoned as a domestic Enemy.” To white Harrisburg
residents in the grip of war fever, that warning could have been restated “every
black man may be reckoned as a domestic enemy.”
Daily Telegraph, 20 April 1861.
Compiler, 22 April 1861.
and Union, 25 April 1861.
Daily Telegraph, 25 April 1861.
23 April 1860.
York Times, 27 April 1861; New York Herald, 27 April 1861.