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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Eight
Backlash, Violence and Fear:
The Violent Decade (concluded)



A few months later, the spirit of Daniel Dangerfield was alive and resident in Harrisburg for a day, even if his person was not. The occasion was the annual celebration of Emancipation Day, during which Harrisburg African Americans, like their brethren in many other towns and cities across the country, celebrated their own special holiday of independence.

Prior to the end of slavery in the United States, northern blacks had few occasions to celebrate the ideas of freedom and equality. Independence Day rang hollow for most free African Americans, many of whom had family and friends in bondage in slave-holding states. The raucous celebrations of July Fourth also posed a threat to free blacks in large cities, who were often targeted with firecrackers by malicious revelers. As a result, many free African Americans remained indoors or otherwise maintained a low profile during the explosion-filled holiday.

Harrisburg residents, along with blacks in other large Northern cities, chose a different day and a different cause for celebration: The first day of August was Emancipation Day, named in honor of the 1834 act of the British Parliament bringing an end to slavery in the British West Indies. The day was marked by parades and abolitionist speeches, often to the confusion of the local white community, who did not understand the significance of the date. Whites who observed local African American residents commemorating the day paternalistically likened the activities to child-like fun and nonsense.

The earliest documented Emancipation Day celebration in Harrisburg occurred in 1857, on a small scale. Schoolchildren were organized into a parade through the borough's Tanner's Alley neighborhood under the direction of Charles Robinson, an established oysterman and neighborhood patriarch. Though he could neither read nor write, Robinson organized a neighborhood celebration and choreographed an intricate series of marching maneuvers to squeeze the procession smartly through the maze of narrow alleys that constituted the African American portion of the East Ward. A writer for the Harrisburg Daily Telegraph reported the event in its afternoon edition:

Love and Charity. A company consisting of about twenty colored children marshaled by Charley Robinson paraded in Walnut street this morning. They were uniformed in sashes of red, white and blue muslin, with red rosettes, and carried a banner with the words "Love and Charity" imprinted thereon. About every third one of the juveniles were provided with a miniature drum and brass trumpet, which they "tooted" with an earnestness that showed their feelings were strongly enlisted in the cause, whatever it was.

When the company arrived at Tanner's alley, marshal Robinson in true military style advanced before the drummer, and planting his baton of office upon the ground, bade them wheel to the right, and the precision with which this movement was executed drew from even the soldiers themselves loud and repeated bursts of applause. The last we saw of the precious youngsters they were about filing into the colored Masonic Hall, where we presume they were regaled on doughnuts and ginger-bread.170

While the significance of the 1857 celebration escaped the white reporter for the Telegraph, and probably most of those who watched from the street corners outside of the African American neighborhood, it was not lost on those who had laboriously sewn the muslin sashes, fashioned the red rosettes, or who had put forth the funds for the miniature band instruments. Much preparation had gone into this brief show of support for "Love and Charity," the basic Christian principles that buttressed the African American church's support for abolition.

Two years later, Harrisburg's African American community would again come together for a celebration of freedom in lands other than their own. The 1859 event, bigger and better, brought together celebrants from around the region: Carlisle, Baltimore, and Philadelphia. Instead of a band of twenty schoolchildren, this event featured a mounted grand marshal, a uniformed and armed color guard, a brass band from Philadelphia, marching contingents from the local temperance society and cultural clubs, and another band from the Odd Fellows lodge. The magnificent parade began in town and proceeded to a nearby picnic grove where speeches were given by Henry Highland Garnet and Jacob C. White, Jr., one a nationally prominent black leader and one an up-and-coming leader.

The Rev. Charles W. Gardiner of Harrisburg also spoke. At seventy-seven years of age, the elderly Gardiner, a highly respected Presbyterian minister and leader of the new “Colored” Presbyterian Church, had experienced much change in the rights accorded to African American people. Born during the revolution, when blacks were enslaved in every state except Vermont, he saw the gradual abolition of the hated practice throughout the north. In his later years, he saw slavery grow more entrenched in the south, and heard the rhetoric over its fate grow increasingly bitter. On this day, he had come to celebrate its demise in a foreign land, and to pray for the same result in his native land.

The day ended with picnic food, drink, and a concert back in the town at Brant’s Hall, on Market Street. Unlike the earlier event, some whites did join the festivities, and the local newspaper reporter was no longer confused as to the reason for the celebration, although he may not have entirely understood it.171

On this day in 1859, however, a mere four months after the deliverance of Daniel Dangerfield from imminent re-enslavement, the message was very clear to those assembled in the picnic grove. That assemblage, which almost certainly included William Jones and the other three men who had traveled with him to Independence Hall in April to do battle against the Southern slave powers, heard a young man named Jacob C. White, Jr. demand to know why African Americans had "No rights in a land which embosoms the hallowed remains of our ancestors? No liberty in a country which was freed by our own arms?"172

The speaker that day was a twenty-two-year-old mathematics teacher from Philadelphia’s Institute for Colored Youth, and a driving force behind the intellectual society known as the Banneker Institute. Born free to a well-to-do African American family in Philadelphia, Jacob C. White, Jr. grew up in a household that welcomed persons such as William Whipper, A.M.E. Bishop Reverend Daniel Payne, Robert Purvis, and Passmore Williamson as regular guests.

White’s father, Jacob C. White, Sr., was a successful entrepreneur who strongly supported education, moral reform, and equal rights activism, all causes that his son also eagerly embraced. The elder White had owned a free produce style “China Store” in Philadelphia, to market only products produced by free labor, as opposed to products produced by slave labor, and later worked for the Vigilant Association of Philadelphia to move fugitive slaves along the Underground Railroad to safe havens. Jacob White’s mother formed the Philadelphia Female Vigilant Association, as an adjunct fund-raising society.173 Jacob C. White, Sr. continued his anti-slavery activism as a member of the reconstituted Vigilance Committee in the 1850s, and served with William Still and Passmore Williamson on that organization’s Acting Committee.174 His son followed in White senior’s footsteps, giving passionate support to all the same causes.

If the younger White’s speech struck a belligerent tone that Monday, it was not only intentional, it was also in keeping with the mood of Harrisburg’s African American community. The invited guest of honor at the event, Henry Highland Garnet, was an outspoken proponent of militant abolitionism who had never apologized for, nor backed away from, some highly inflammatory statements he made in a speech at Albany in 1843, in which he exhorted slaves to free themselves with violence, if necessary, urging, “However much you and all of us may desire it, there is not much hope of redemption without the shedding of blood. If you must bleed, let it all come at once—rather die free men, than live to be the slaves.”

Garnet’s call to arms frightened and alienated many people, even causing such stalwart campaigners as William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglass to temporarily distance themselves from him, but now that the violent 1850s were drawing to a close, his fiery words found a receptive ear among blacks in atrocity-weary towns across Pennsylvania and elsewhere.


The Henry Highland Garnet Guards

It was no coincidence that Harrisburg’s first African American militia unit had named itself in his honor. The Henry Highland Garnet Guards, outfitted in gray uniforms and military caps, marched down Market Street bearing brand new muskets—a sight that must have astounded many of Harrisburg’s whites, who were witnessing for the first time the public demonstrations of a large body of well drilled, well armed black men.175

The Garnet Guards listened to Jacob C. White, Jr. recite the long and heroic history of military service given by men of African descent to the United States, many of whom gave their lives in defense of the country, only to be met with “no rights,” and “no liberty,” for themselves or their survivors, as payment for their service. The sharp sting of Supreme Court Chief Justice Roger Taney’s decision in the Dred Scott case denying them citizenship was still fresh, even though it was handed down two years earlier. But White’s words struck even deeper into his audience, all of whom had experienced the daily racism that surrounded them. It was a topic of much relevance lately.

One month earlier, in a speech at the Banneker Institute in commemoration of the Declaration of Independence, White had complained “If we sit at home, we feel it—if we walk the streets, the influence of prejudice surrounds us at every step—if we sleep, our dreams are of the weight of oppression we are obliged to sustain.”176 In years past, the banners of forbearance, tolerance, and patience had been carried by the grandfathers and fathers of those in the crowd, and for two decades, they had carried it high, sustained by the teachings of their church. But if the theme of this First of August celebration was any indication, the era of Job-like patience had finally come to a close. In its place, the African American people of Harrisburg had adopted a much more militant posture.

This new militancy did not appear overnight. It was born of the frustrations from a decade of violence and a steady backsliding of freedoms. The impressive gains in personal liberty in Pennsylvania during the late 1830s and most of the 1840s, most of which were won through political and social defiance, were quickly erased by the roughshod enforcement of the Fugitive Slave Law. African American communities that had nurtured social, literary, and moral improvement societies through the 1840s, and expected to reap the benefits of those social movements through the 1850s, instead found their communities shattered by fear, as large numbers of people fled with their families to Canada.

In their place came hundreds of poor, unskilled, uneducated refugees, who competed for too few jobs in an economic downturn that did not lift until late in the decade. Harrisburg saw a sharp increase in all the old vices: alcohol, gambling, and prostitution. Tanner’s Alley, as an African American cultural center, stopped growing geographically, constrained as it was by development on all sides, but its population swelled dramatically, increasing the misery of its cramped inhabitants. Strangers arrived weekly, interacted little with the longtime inhabitants, and moved on. Violence increased and tempers became steadily shorter.

By the late 1850s, Harrisburg’s African American residents desperately needed a unifying element to bring old timers and newcomers together. Without it, the community was in danger of fracturing, and all the improvements in the local anti-slavery network made by Joseph Bustill were in jeopardy. Then the key appeared. William Jones provided the unifying element when he testified at Daniel Dangerfield’s hearing in Philadelphia, in 1859, and Jacob C. White, Jr. seized and expanded upon that element when he spoke to the assembled crowd in a cool picnic grove on the First of August. It was their legacy.

Enslaved, hunted, disenfranchised, proscribed, and segregated by their white neighbors, and now declared non-citizens by the highest court in the land, African Americans, as far as white persons were concerned, could lay claim to “no rights which the white man was bound to respect.” It was a chilling, disheartening and thoroughly unexpected twist of fate for people who had worked side-by-side with whites to clear forest land on the Pennsylvania frontier to establish farms, had suffered from starvation, disease and exposure to make those remote farms succeed, had died defending those farms from Indian raids, had volunteered to work and fight for independence from Britain, had toiled selflessly and loyally for white ironmasters, shopkeepers and ship’s captains, had labored tirelessly on the region’s riverboats, canals and railroads to promote commerce, and had settled into the roles of good citizens by starting businesses, paying taxes, and raising educated children. If their country did not want them, after generations of sacrifice and dedication, then where were they to place their loyalties?

Old Doctor Jones knew the answer. It was always a part of his life’s work, whether he was ministering to the aches and pains of his neighbors, to the spiritual well-being of his congregants, or to the thirst for freedom of the refugees hidden in his wagon. He knew that they must dedicate themselves to each other and to the institutions that unquestioningly supported them: home, church, and family.

He measured up to his own beliefs by traveling from Harrisburg to Philadelphia on a moment’s notice to testify, in the middle of the night, for a man who had once been a stranger in town. There, in a building that had once played a key role in the national drama of independence, Jones relied not on patriotism, or faith in country and law, but on the one thing that most African Americans shared: a profound sense of place.

It did not matter that he and Daniel Dangerfield found themselves working together in Harrisburg in 1853; it could have been Pittsburgh, or Richmond, or Baton Rouge. What mattered was the shared experience of working together in a cohesive community that was firmly anchored in friendship, family, and church. Those experiences strengthened the memories that supported Jones’ testimony, memories that were so unshakable under hours of cross-examination by veteran attorney Benjamin Brewster. By interweaving his personal history with that of his friend, Daniel Dangerfield, Jones produced a powerful tool, a shield, with which he triumphed against a more powerful adversary.

African American memory—the oral traditions that preserved family and cultural histories—became the unifying element that kept Harrisburg’s otherwise disparate African American factions working as a like-minded community. Jacob C. White, Jr. summoned this same legacy forward on Emancipation Day in 1859 when he called forth the martial spirit of African American soldiers and patriots past as witnesses to the struggle. They had sacrificed not for country—a country that had now turned its back on them—but for each other. African American memory; this was the unifying legacy of more than fifteen decades of slavery and racism. This was the theme of Harrisburg’s Emancipation Day—a day that would hold special significance as the violent decade lurched toward a bloody and turbulent climax.


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170. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 1 August 1857.

171. Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 116-117. Emancipation Day later came to mean the day on which Abraham Lincoln's Emancipation Proclamation went into effect, which was 1 January 1863. However many states have their own distinct observance of Emancipation Day, which pertain to some aspect of the end of slavery there. Another popular holiday relating to the end of slavery in the United States is Juneteenth. In the Caribbean, Emancipation Day, as it was originally observed, is widely celebrated in August. Harrisburg residents had shown an interest in First of August celebrations as early as 1849, when local residents John F. Williams and Anna E. Williams corresponded with the New York Committee of Arrangements for the First of August Celebration, in Buffalo. North Star, 24 August 1849.

172. Weekly Anglo-African, 13 August 1859.

173. Harry C. Silcox, “Philadelphia Negro Educator: Jacob C. White, Jr., 1837-1902,” Pennsylvania Magazine of History and Biography 97, no. 1 (January 1973): 76-78.

174. Provincial Freeman (Toronto, Canada West), 8 July 1854.

175. Quarles, Black Abolitionists, 116. African American militia units were a rarity in Pennsylvania. The only other African American militia company in central Pennsylvania during this period was the Frederick Douglass Guards, of Reading.

176. Silcox, “Negro Educator,” 83.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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