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20th Century


Harrisburg's "Free Person of Color" Registration Ordinance of 1821


The document below is a transcription of an ordinance that became law in Harrisburg in 1821.  It required all free African Americans in the borough--Harrisburg was forty years away from becoming a city at this time--to appear before the Chief Burgess and register their names, occupations, addresses and the names of all family members and other non-whites in their homes.  They had to notify the authorities if they moved to another residence in town, and if anyone moved in with them.  The Chief Burgess would then give them a certificate of registration, for which they had to pay him twelve-and-a-half cents.

In addition, the ordinance also required all innkeepers and other persons who hosted travelers, to notify the authorities of any free African Americans who were staying at their inn or home for more than twenty-four hours.  The travelers were then required to appear before the authorities to register their names, occupations and place of rest.

The penalties for failing to comply, whether out of neglect or willful disobedience, was one dollar per day--a very stiff fine.  If the local constables found a "strange person of color" around town who was not registered, they were supposed to take that person before a judge and that person would be charged with vagrancy, idleness and disorderly conduct, regardless of what they were doing at the time.

This ordinance follows closely a nearly identical ordinance passed in Lancaster in May 1820, and in fact it uses language identical to that found in the Lancaster law.  The perceived threat by idle free Blacks that prompted the earlier Lancaster law came from Harrisburg, in a letter from a Harrisburg citizen to Adam Reigert of Lancaster, telling of a rash of fires in the vicinity that prompted nightly patrols by local citizens.  As a result of these regular patrols "after two or three nights patroling, eighteen blacks, supposed to be runaway, left Harrisburg, all directing their course for Lancaster."

The Lancaster ordinance produced a register containing 340 names, which has survived intact and is a valuable source of information on Lancaster's African American population of this period. It is interesting to note that the Harrisburg ordinance differs from the Lancaster ordinance in that it specifies "free persons of Color," rather than "free black person," which is the term used in the Lancaster ordinance.  The attempt here is only to control non-whites who are not already under the rigid controls of slavery and indentured servitude.

The Laws of the Borough of Harrisburgh

An Ordinance prescribing regulations concerning free persons of Color.

Section 1.  Be it ordained by the Town-Council of the borough of Harrisburgh that from and after the tenth day of May next every free person of color, who shall then be within the said borough, wither as residents or intending to remain within the same, or who shall at any time thereafter come within the said borough, shall, on the said tenth day of May next or within twenty four hours after such coming to said borough, appear before the Chief Burgess and enter their name, together with the places of their abodes respectively, with the names of their family, if any, and the inmates thereof, and the trade, calling or occupation of them, or either of them, and in case of their removal from one house or place, within the borough, to any other house or place therein, in like manner to enter same with the said Chief Burgess, whose duty it shall be to Register the same, and to give a certificate thereof to the person registering for which he shall receive from such person 12 1/2 Cents.  And in case any such person of color shall neglect or refuse to comply with this ordinance, he or she shall forfeit and pay one dollar every twenty four hours he or she shall so neglect or refuse; recovered as other penalties are directed to be recovered by any ordinance of the borough.

Sect 2.  And be it further ordained by this authority aforesaid That all Innkeepers and other persons, resident in the borough to whose house any free person of color shall come, and shall continue there for the space of twenty four hours, such persons shall, under the penalty of One dollar, make report thereof to the Chief Burgess, or to one of the Borough Constables, who shall immediately require said person to register himself or herself agreeably to the directions contained in this ordinance.

Sect. 3.  And be it further ordained by this authority aforesaid That is shall be the duty of the High Constable or the constables of the said borough, in case any strange person of color shall be found therein, not having complied with this ordinance, to take him or her forth with before any justice of the peace within the said borough to be dealt with according to the law; and in such manner as is directed with respect to vagrants and idle or disorderly persons.

Enacted into a Law April 25th 1821.

Jn. Downey Town Clk.

Fr. Kelker, prest. of the Town Council Harrisburg

Source: Photocopied document, "Slaves" folder, The Alexander Family Library, The Historical Society of Dauphin County, 219 South Front Street, Harrisburg, PA 17104.

Harrisburg's registry was located several years ago in the city archives. A complete transcription of names and page images is available on this site.

A legal progenitor of this ordinance is the 1806 Pennsylvania General Assembly bill "An Act respecting Black and Mulatto persons" which is found here.

Lancaster's "Negro Entry Book" is examined and detailed in the article "The Negro Entry Book:  A Document of Lancaster County's Antebellum African American Community," by Leroy T. Hopkins, Jr., published in the Journal of the Lancaster County Historical Society.


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