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The Year of Jubilee (1863)

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March 1837: Early Documentation of a Racially Mixed Dance House in Harrisburg

Although whites in the upper and middle income classes in northern cities seldom if ever mixed socially with African Americans during the colonial and antebellum eras, the same was not true for whites who inhabited the lower economic rungs of society. Laborers, indentured servants, house servants, watermen, soldiers, drovers, and craftspersons of all races mixed freely in unlicensed taverns, and later in unregulated "dance halls."

These establishments offered dancing and alcohol sales, but also harbored gambling and prostitution, and generally were located in the poorest neighborhoods of large towns and cities. In Harrisburg, they thrived in the African American neighborhoods of Tanner's Alley and Judy's Town, and later in Allison's Hollow, across the Market Street canal bridge.

Here, whites and blacks interacted in a free-form social environment that ignored societal taboos against racial mixing. Such businesses, though, could be extremely dangerous for unwary patrons, and presented an unhealthy and exploitive environment for neighborhood children. The following news article from 1837 documents one such establishment that was involved in a notorious incident of violence against a a young girl who had just come to Harrisburg in search of work:

Harrisburg, March 1.
Outrage Unprecedented.--.The morale and feelings of our community were shocked and excited beyond description, at an occurance which took place on Monday evening, the 20th of Feb., commenced and carried out by the villainy and brutality of a deplorably wretched, worthless, depraved, and unmeasurably wicked gang of youths, with which our town is infested. In the following succinct account is embodied the particulars of the outrage referred to.

On the day and date above mentioned, there came to our borough a young and apparently innocent girl, between the age of 14 and 15, from Carlisle, in search of employment; and wandering through town, going from house to house, inquiring for employment as a servant, she strayed into a disreputable part of our town; being an entire stranger here, she wsa not aware of the fact. As night was setting in, she was accosted by one of the gang above alluded to, who inquired of her, who or what she was in search of; upon informing him, he told her that if she went with him, he would get a place for her; young, innocent and unsuspecting, she accompanied him, to what she supposed was a respectable house, but which was a grog and dance kennel, kept by a black man, notorious for its depravity.--Here a scene took place, which, while it beggars description, exhibits a state of moral depravity, painful in the extreme to every well-wisher of the social community.

The article went on to describe a brutal attack upon the girl by a gang of persons in the dance house, and noted that a reward for the apprehension of several of the attackers had been offered by Pennsylvania Governor Joseph Ritner. It continued:

We are much pleased to see so liberal a reward offered in such an emergency. It is evidence that our Governor properly appreciates the injury done to society, independent of the individual wrong suffered by this unaccountable transaction.

While on this subject, let us, in duty bound, advert to the condition of certain portions of our town, where debauchery has undivided sway, and immorality stalks abroad unlicensed.

We are informed from creditable sources that there are from eight to ten, what are called "DANCE HOUSES," and generally kept by blacks, in different sections of our borough, where lewd females, both white and black, meet the dregs of our male community, such as were engaged in the above described transaction, daily and nightly, and where scenes such as we have attempted to describe in the case of the poor unfortunate girl, are of no common occurance. Nay, it is said it is even worse yet, if worse it can be.

An eye witness to one night's reveling in one of these places gives us an account which we, through delicacy, forbear publishing, the best of which consists in dancing, drinking, gambling, thieving, robbing, and fighting. All that wickedness can invent--every indulgence that depravity can originate--and every vice that destitution, poverty, and crime can give rise to, are here performed without compunction, without shame; nay, their performance is gloried in. And to "cap the climax," boys under FIFTEEN, and girls under TWELVE, are not unfrequently seen participating with all the spirit of youthful ardor, which in many cases is even yet heightened by intoxicating liquors, in all and every species of iniquity that morbid sensibility, lewdness, & drunkeness can bring about.

In the course of railing against the existence of these illicit businesses, the Harrisburg Chronicle article above reveals some very important details about racial mixing in Harrisburg among those who occupied the lower income classes in the borough. Of particular interest are the observations that such businesses were "generally kept by blacks," and that they employed both whites and blacks. Even more significantly, it states that eight to ten such businesses existed in different sections of town. This represents a major entrepreneurial movement by Harrisburg African Americans, albeit one potentially interlaced with violence and crime, barely a decade after breaking free of having to live in white households as servants.

Such illegal businesses provided employment of last resort for fugitive slaves, newly liberated persons from the South, and others who found their way to Harrisburg in search of better lives. Acting as a sort of economic pressure valve, they absorbed those who otherwise might have starved for lack of income. Not all such dance houses and lager halls were as corrupt as the one described above. Some secured licences and became legitimate businesses over time.

In terms of race relations, these unlicensed dance houses provided a venue for whites and blacks to intermingle, drink, gamble, dance, and arrange assignations, all occurring in an atmosphere of mutual tolerance, if not quite social equality. It was in establishments such as these, and in their slightly more socially acceptable cousins, oyster cellars, that acquaintances were made that would enable racial cooperation in accomplishing the shadowy and illegal work of the Underground Railroad. Conversely, the raucous dance houses also provided valuable contacts for men such as Solomon Snyder, the Harrisburg constable who worked with Slave Commissioner Richard McAllister to break the back of Harrisburg's Underground Railroad network during the early years of the 1850 Fugitive Slave Law.

Source: Harrisburg Chronicle, republished in Adams Sentinel and General Advertiser, 6 March 1837.


Covering the history of African Americans in central Pennsylvania from the colonial era through the Civil War.

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