Persons of Color
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (continued)
midstate quieted down somewhat and the African
American community in Harrisburg relaxed after Solomon Snyder was
finally convicted of kidnapping and sentenced to six years in prison.
Many in the local black community had flocked to his initial hearing
before Justice Henry Beader in February. The Keystone reported, “During
the examination of Snyder, the magistrate’s office and vicinity
of the prison were filled with spectators, and the joy of the colored
population knew no bounds on beholding their inveterate enemy in
the hands of the officers of the law.”
he and his accomplice, David Jackson, were sentenced that April,107 there
must have been an audible sigh of relief from the neighborhoods of
Tanner’s Alley and Judy’s Town. The town had endured nearly
five long years of racial strife associated with the Fugitive Slave
Law, so residents probably hailed the resignation of Richard McAllister
and the imprisonment of Solomon Snyder as hopeful signs of change.
might even have been some disappointment that the Fugitive Slave Law
was not turning out to be the solution to the slavery issue, but at
least the borough was not experiencing the kind of slavery-related
violence that was tearing apart the Kansas Territory. Congress, in
May 1854, had passed the Kansas-Nebraska Act, allowing for the residents
of the respective territories to decide, by popular sovereignty, whether
to allow slavery in their territories. Nebraska was not considered
at risk of choosing slavery, but Kansas, which experienced an influx
of activists for both sides of the issue, became a battleground.
flared frequently as pro-slavery settlers poured across the Missouri
border into Kansas to swell the popular vote in favor of allowing slavery,
while anti-slavery eastern men, including many Pennsylvanians, made
the journey west to add their numbers opposing slavery. It was not
long before hostilities broke into open warfare between the two groups,
and “Bleeding Kansas” became a surrogate battleground between
the slave South and the free North.
in Harrisburg, York, Carlisle, Lancaster, and Gettysburg reported regularly
on the atrocities, killings, and revenge killings that began to mount
in the territories. Although the strife seemed geographically remote,
its reach would extend into central Pennsylvania, and it would indeed
bring change, but not the type of hoped-for change that local residents
anticipated with the passing of the Slave Commissioner and his henchmen.
Something even more insidious was on its way.
not all was gloom and doom. There were other major changes afoot, and
some brought badly needed corrective action. By the end of 1855, Harrisburg’s
Underground Railroad operation was ripe for change—it begged
for change. The Judy’s Town operators were still in disarray
and the old strategies were badly in need of an update. With McAllister’s
Walnut Street office vacant, the constant, daily harassment by slave
hunters who menaced Harrisburg blacks with the legal backing of local
law enforcement officials was now only a bad memory, yet activists
continued to operate with extreme timidity, as if a meaner and more
vicious Slave Commissioner was just around the corner.
the same time, the number of fugitives coming into the state, particularly
from the border counties of Maryland, was increasing. Also increasing
were the activities of slave catchers along the border. The need to
reestablish Harrisburg as a hub for the converging routes from Lancaster,
Carlisle, York, and Gettysburg was great, but doing so would require
massive changes in the way freedom seekers were taken in, processed,
and forwarded. The task required someone who was both innovative and
person arrived in town, probably during the waning weeks of the year,
stepping off of a passenger coach onto the platform of the Pennsylvania
Railroad station, squeezed between the east side of the tracks and
the canal. He would have retrieved his bags and probably paused to
survey the surrounding industrial corridor, bustling with commerce,
before cautiously crossing the railroad tracks and Meadow Lane to walk
the few blocks northwest to Tanner’s Alley, where he intended
to set up shop.
man who arrived on the train from Philadelphia in the winter of 1855-1856
was the grandson of a liberated slave-turned-businessman, and the son
of a hard-working tradesman and abolitionist. He came from a family
of educators—his grandfather and cousin both taught poor African
American children in Philadelphia—and this was the profession
he intended to pursue in Harrisburg. Appropriately, he had been named
for a great champion of African American education, who also happened
to be a great family friend. He was well educated, highly literate
and fit for the job. A few years earlier, he had run an ad in Frederick
Douglass’ newspaper, North Star, in which he advertised his services
and Confidential Letter Writer, would most respectfully inform
his friends and the public in general, that he has for their accommodation,
opened his office for the keeping of Books, casting accounts, writing
letters upon business, &c. the drawing of Bonds, articles of
agreement, Constitutions, bye-laws, reports, communications, &c. &c.,
at No. 169, South Sixth Street, below Pine, where by his strict
attention to business he hopes to secure their patronage, and merit
their confidence and esteem. Terms Cash. Office hours from 9 A.M.
to 9 P.M. Also Agent for the NORTH STAR, single copies of which
can be obtained; and the sale of Lots in Lebanon Cemetery.108
workaholic and jack-of-all-trades was also socially well connected.
At thirty-three years of age he could already boast of a ten-year association
with the Grand United Order of Odd Fellows, and in 1850, the year he
opened his office on South Sixth Street, he had been entrusted with
the entire circulation of the North Star newspaper in Philadelphia.
He was named for West Indian immigrant, moral reformer, abolitionist,
and successful entrepreneur Joseph Cassey, who, in 1839 had joined
with James Forten and Stephen Smith to create a scholarship for African
American students at New York’s Oneida Institute. During that
same year, at age seventeen, he began actively helping his brother,
Charles Hicks Bustill, hide fugitive slaves around the city of Philadelphia.
His entire family, in fact, was committed to the anti-slavery cause,
and in the winter of 1855-1856, Joseph Cassey Bustill brought his family’s
passion for activism and his own vision for a vital and reactivated
Underground Railroad operation to Harrisburg.
probable that Joseph C. Bustill’s appearance in Harrisburg at
this time was much more than happenstance. As noted, he arrived in
town after the local Slave Commissioner was ousted and his last lieutenant
was safely removed to prison. The local network was sagging with age,
and, perhaps, weariness. Old Father Jones was nearly sixty-five years
old and Edward Bennett was over fifty years old. Church patriarchs
George Galbraith and David Stevens, although still very vital, were
over fifty years and nearly forty years old respectively. All these
local persons had been actively hiding and caring for slaves for between
twenty-five and forty years, and the numbers of runaways finding their
way to Harrisburg lately was increasing with the passing of the McAllister
white abolitionists were similarly aging and one of the chief white
supporters, Alexander Graydon, had been gone for more than a decade.
At the end of 1855 and beginning of 1856, there did not appear to be
anyone actually directing local anti-slavery operations, nor was there
even a single identifiable figure in town to whom local activists could
turn for guidance. York had William Goodridge, Columbia had William
Whipper, Lancaster and Gettysburg each had a functioning network, but
Harrisburg appeared to be languishing.
as head of the newly revitalized Vigilance Committee, William Still
looked with great concern at the Harrisburg situation. The capital
was a major hub for several Underground Railroad routes: fugitives
from Gettysburg, York, Lancaster, Carlisle, and Columbia all converged
here. Harrisburg was too important to leave alone with the hope that
someone would step up to the challenge. Clearly, there was a need for
bold, strong leadership. Joseph Bustill did not arbitrarily leave a
successful business in Philadelphia and move to Harrisburg at the end
of 1855 looking for work as a schoolteacher. He was sent to take charge
of things. Joseph Bustill was sent to make changes.
Harrisburg Fugitive Aid Society
of his first tasks was to reorganize the local
resistance. Harrisburg, like most towns in southern Pennsylvania,
was still a very dangerous place for freedom seekers. The departure
of McAllister had helped to calm the nerves of local activists,
but there were still literally hundreds of unfriendly eyes watching
the streets and bridges every day, alert for the telltale dress
and behavior of a runaway fugitive from the south.
It was a
combination of behavior and clothing that apparently had tipped off
Colonel Joseph P. Hummel, back in 1850, that six of the eight African
American men he watched crossing the Harrisburg Bridge into town were
escaped slaves. Unless an alert stationmaster along the road to Harrisburg
had made provisions for the fugitives to change clothing, chances are
great that they were still wearing their distinctive slave clothing,
which was usually distinguished by its drab, homemade appearance.
advertisement from this period lists typical “Negro clothing” in
its appeal for the return of Baltimore slaves Basil White and Joshua
Anderson. White escaped wearing “a blue monkey coat, coarse gray
pants, a slouch hat and coarse boots.” Anderson was clothed in “a
full suit of homemade gray clothes, with heavy coarse boots.”109 The
terms “course,” “gray” and “homemade” are
clues to the poor quality of clothing issued to slaves in the South
during this period.
hoped to gain an edge over those local persons who would report a suspected
slave in town, he would have to make sure that sufficient clothing
was kept on hand to give to incoming slaves. Medical care, food, and
shelter were the other immediate concerns, and while all these necessities
had been provided in the past by dedicated Harrisburg anti-slavery
activists, the need to make sure all this aid was available when it
was needed was a monumental task. Pledges for food donations had to
be collected, cooks had to be lined up, hosts with a spare room had
to be found, nurses, doctors, seamstresses, and guides had to be enlisted,
and all had to be ready to work or supply goods at a moment’s
notice. Just because someone had provided a room or a meal in the past
was no guarantee that they would do so again.110 It
took an organized, diplomatic, charismatic, and persuasive individual
to make all this happen, and to do so consistently, time and again.
This was Joseph Bustill’s role as he undertook the job of reorganizing
Harrisburg’s Underground Railroad movement in 1856.
Back in Philadelphia,
William Still kept careful records, and recorded all his correspondence
with his far-flung lieutenants in the field. He must have felt great
satisfaction when he read, in a March 1856 letter from Joseph Bustill
at Harrisburg, that his agent in this principle Underground Railroad “depot” had
lately “formed a Society here, called the Fugitive Aid Society.” Harrisburg
had been without a local anti-slavery organization for quite some time.
The pioneering “Harrisburg Anti-Slavery Society,” organized
in 1836, did not last long, being quickly overshadowed by the Pennsylvania
Anti-Slavery Society, which was organized in town the following year.
Besides, the official role of the PAS was to lobby for political action
opposing slavery, and not to provide support for fugitive slaves, although
unofficially, some of the lecturers employed by the PAS may have played
a role in organizing Underground Railroad networks in the areas they
that provided active support for fugitive slaves, then, was a vital
step toward making Harrisburg a more effective and dependable Underground
Railroad hub. Bustill now had a social framework in place for dealing
with the many needs of freedom seekers who were already heading his
It is important
to note, though, that the Philadelphia native had important local help
in getting the society organized. In his letter, Bustill specifically
wrote, “We have formed a Society.” Although he did not
name his chief partners in Harrisburg, one must certainly have been
the veteran anti-slavery campaigner John F. Williams. Williams, along
with his wife Hannah, had been the family that opened their North Ward
home to Martin R. Delany in November 1849 when the activist and newspaper
editor, who was touring Pennsylvania as an anti-slavery orator, was
turned away from local hotels due to his color. Two years before that,
Williams was one of the three local African American men that were
appointed by the black community to invite Frederick Douglass and William
Lloyd Garrison to Harrisburg. Williams was also acquainted with William
Still, and visited him in Philadelphia in May 1856. He carried with
him an important letter from Bustill in Harrisburg, detailing recent
operations. In the letter to Still, Bustill refers to Williams as “our
It is probable
that Joseph Bustill, as a newly arrived bachelor schoolteacher in Harrisburg,
spent a lot of time in the Williams Family household, which was located
in the neighborhood of Tanners Alley. Living with John and his wife
Hannah was Hannah’s younger sister, Sarah Humphreys. Sarah must
have been impressed with this new frequent visitor to the household.
Bustill was well educated, was entirely devoted to the abolitionist
cause, and he exuded the heady air of mystery and conspiracy about
him as he and her brother-in-law worked out plans to better smuggle
fugitive slaves through the streets of Harrisburg.
For his part,
Bustill was equally smitten with the pretty little sister of his host’s
wife, and some time after his arrival in Harrisburg, the two began
a courtship that would end in marriage.112 The
romance that blossomed between Joseph Bustill and Sarah Humphreys,
however, developed later. Initially, the Philadelphia businessman-turned-schoolteacher
had his hands full in organizing Harrisburg’s resistance into
a bold, new operation. He must have worked quickly, to be able to report
on his successes in a few short months to William Still in Philadelphia.
That was fortunate. Bustill’s new Harrisburg “depot” would
be put to a huge test in the first few days of spring.
107. Ibid.; Eggert, “Impact,” 566.
Star, 25 January 1850; Anna Bustill Smith, “The Bustill
Family,” Journal of Negro History 10, no. 4 (October
1925): 639-640, 643; Winch, Philadelphia’s Black Elite,
Sun, 6 January 1853. The term “monkey coat” probably
refers to a “monkey jacket,” which was a very short,
tight-fitting jacket typically worn by sailors.
Still complained of the problems he incurred while trying to secure
lodging in Philadelphia for pursued slaves at the last minute. Even
supposedly dedicated advocates of anti-slavery resistance occasionally
quailed at the possibility of being caught sheltering fugitive slaves.
He related one memorable incident in which he experienced trouble finding
shelter for six fugitives just received from Joseph Bustill in Harrisburg: “Being
mindful of the great danger of the hour, there was felt to be more
occasion just then for anxiety and watchfulness, than for cheering
and hurrahing over the brave passengers. To provide for them in the
usual manner, in view of the threatening aspect of affairs, could not
be thought of. In this critical hour it devolved upon a member of the
Committee, for the safety of all parties, to find new and separate
places of accommodation, especially for the six known to be pursued.
To be stored in other than private families would not answer. Three
or four such were visited at once; after learning of the danger much
sympathy was expressed, but one after another made excuses and refused.
This was painful, for the parties had plenty of house room, were identified
with the oppressed race, and on public meeting occasions made loud
professions of devotion to the cause of the fugitive, &c. The memory
of the hour and circumstances is still fresh.” Still, Underground
Rail Road, 219.
112. For the
relationship between Sarah Humphreys and Hannah Williams, see the Freedman’s
Bank Records, New York, NY Branch, account information for Caroline
Mathews, no. 3993. Matthews is one of five daughters of Jacob and Phoebe
Humphrey. In bank records dated January 25, 1872, Caroline listed her
sisters as “Sarah wife [of] Jos. C. Bustill, living in Phila, & Evaline
wife of Robt Barnitz in Harrisburg & Anna wife John F. Williams
in Shasta, Wis. & Hannah wife of William Harris, Little York, Pa.” Although
the names of Hannah and Anna seem to have been switched (possibly a
recording error), the other details match census data. The 1850 census
for the North Ward of Harrisburg shows Sarah Humphrey, age 24 (misspelled
Humphy) and Eveline Humphrey, age 28 living in the household of John
F. and Hannah Williams (Hannah was age 30). In addition, Caroline Mathews,
in 1872, listed a son, David Leech, by her first husband. In 1860,
David Leach, age seven, is enumerated in Harrisburg in the household
of Joseph and Sarah Bustill, in Harrisburg’s Sixth Ward (Tanner’s
Alley neighborhood). Registers of Signatures of Depositors in Branches
of the Freedman's Savings and Trust Company, 1865-1874, Washington,
D.C., National Archives and Records Administration, Micropublication
M816, Account 3993.