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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 Nine
Deluge (continued)


We Can Do For Ourselves What Nobody Else Can Do For Us

Joseph Popel’s “brilliantly illuminated” house on Filbert Street was more than a show of support for the red oilcloth-cloaked Wide Awakes that marched past it that evening. It was a call to arms for his fellow African American residents. Through his past actions, Popel had clearly demonstrated that he was, and would continue to be, an active participant in the struggle for African American rights. He recognized the need for constant agitation in favor of economic, political, and social equality, and he could easily see, from observing the streets of Harrisburg, the results of apathy in his community.

Popel had been in Harrisburg long enough to see the African American community change from a tightly-knit, activist community, which took in strangers, free and fugitive alike, and turned out in mass to support captured slaves, to a community fractured by the Fugitive Slave Law and continued racism. Instead of the continued effort toward moral improvement, advocated so strongly for years by William Whipper and Junius Morel, he witnessed the introduction of gambling dens and houses of prostitution in his neighborhood as more and more strangers poured into town, and he saw the effects of crime, liquor, and idleness on the community’s children.

Mostly he saw the want. It was most apparent in the faces of his impoverished neighbors, of which there were many, and it was most keenly apparent the following month, when the Keystone State celebrated Thanksgiving. The popular holiday of Thanksgiving was celebrated in Harrisburg on 29 November that year, and he knew it would be celebrated in many different ways among city residents. Even then, it was a traditional day of feasting. Most Harrisburg residents had adopted turkey as the favored dish to be consumed on this Thursday of thanks, although old time residents still expressed a preference for venison. Sauerkraut dinners were available for the German residents of the city, and the women of St. Patrick’s Church held a fund-raising dinner at Brant’s Hall to raise money to furnish their parsonage.

Harrisburg’s African American community sponsored a daylong “Grand Matinee” in the Exchange Building on Walnut Street, featuring a bounty of food, and musical entertainment from a musician identified only as “Professor Hazard, of Philadelphia.”88 The large variety of events and dinners available shows how the city’s major ethnic groups had established themselves on the eve of the Civil War. Yet even as city residents gave thanks for their blessings as they sat in church that day, and later sat down to sumptuous feasts, there was a keen awareness that for many, the day would be just another day of survival.


Raking Cinders from the Ash Heap

Winter had arrived early, and “the markets were filled with blue-nosed hucksters and round-shouldered buyers, whose congealed breath suggested the idea of so many peripatetic teakettles in full boil,” observed the Patriot and Union. “To those who have abundant means a real wintry morning early in the season is a rather agreeable sensation. The thermometer below the freezing point is shorn of all its terrors when the house is close and warm, when the cellar is well-stored with fuel, and when the bright anthracite casts its comfortable, ruddy glow around well-furnished apartments.”

But, noted the editor, “winter comes in different guise to the very poor.” During this Thanksgiving, Harrisburg’s poor, many of whom were crammed into tight quarters in Tanners Alley and along the various avenues and alleys in that neighborhood, would not have a festive meal to mark the day. Their day would be spent in pursuit of warmth and basic sustenance. The newspaper article cited “insufficient clothing,” a “hearth without fire,” and “barefooted children” as just a few of the miseries endured by the poor in Harrisburg. The writer had observed shoeless “children who are sent out abroad to rake out cinders from the ash heap…for the means to preserve themselves from freezing.”89

Such misfortune was not only heartbreaking to observe, it was also highly demoralizing to community leaders. While they could point to causes and preach sermons, citing the evils of liquor, gambling, idleness, or lack of parental oversight, they also sometimes felt they were butting their heads into a brick wall. It was not a new struggle.


"We Have a History"

More than a year earlier, at Harrisburg’s 1859 Emancipation Day, Jacob C. White, Jr. had summoned the powerful image of a common African American legacy in a bid to urge cooperation and mutual assistance among Harrisburg’s decreasingly homogenous African American community. Several years before that, Joseph Bustill had come to town at the behest of William Still and had successfully knit the splintered anti-slavery activists back into a cohesive organization after their network had been trampled by Richard McAllister and Solomon Snyder.

Building on Bustill’s work, William Jones carried his mission of mutual assistance back to Philadelphia, to rescue Daniel Dangerfield, but Jones himself had been a community organizer in Harrisburg for at least a full decade before Bustill arrived, having been an important link between African American Underground Railroad agents and their white counterparts. Before Doctor Jones was Junius Morel, who brought political organization and social activism to a young, inexperienced African American community that was struggling to find its voice.

Before Morel were the neighborhood leaders: Judy Richards, Edward Bennett, Ezekiel Carter, and George Chester, all of whom had provided a much-needed sense of community to people who felt like outsiders in the very town that they had helped to build. It seems there had always been a need in Harrisburg for strong community leaders, to combat the ever-present, entropic pull of slavery and racism, to pull the community back together every few years. In 1860, it was Joseph Popel’s turn, even if briefly, to remind his neighbors that they had to work together.

The need for African American unity had been voiced by William Still at an Emancipation Day rally earlier that year. Speaking to a crowd at Kennett Square, Pennsylvania, Still explained that Pennsylvania’s free African American residents had a moral responsibility to advocate strongly for themselves and for their brothers and sisters still in bondage, and especially to “devise some plan by which we can more successfully bring about practical cooperation among ourselves, against every phase of oppression.” Pennsylvania’s blacks, he argued, “number a larger free proscribed population than any other Northern State.” Furthermore, this large free population was under the stress of being bordered by three slaveholding states, which regularly sent slaveholders, under the guise of the Fugitive Slave Law, to commit “continual outrages.”

Because of this proximity to slavery, Still noted, “our movements and actions are daily watched by all classes…Hence, in assuming an earnest, resolute and practical ground in favor of freedom, we could not fail to strike most effective blows against oppression.” Pennsylvania’s African Americans, Still reasoned, could, and must set the example, following the lead of, and in homage to, fugitive slaves who risked their lives to take their freedom. Those who arrived regularly on the Underground Railroad had not waited for their masters to set them free, and if the free African American citizens of Philadelphia, Pittsburgh, Lancaster, and Harrisburg were to obtain real and lasting change, they could not afford to sit idly on the sidelines and wait for white lawmakers to act. With “wise and determined effort,” Still concluded, “we can do for ourselves what nobody else can do for us.”90

The sentiment fit well with the speech delivered by Jacob C. White, Jr. the year before, which had been cheered by the uniformed and armed Henry Highland Garnet Guards, and although the Garnet Guards were no longer marching in parades in 1860, having been muscled out by the torch-bearing Wide Awakes, the martial spirit and the dedication to the cause was still there.

White had called upon African American memory as he listed the many conflicts in which blacks had fought for this country, and William Still reinforced White’s summons a year later in his Kennett Square speech by asserting, “We have a history.” He wanted only to know, “with regard to the momentous question of our liberty,” what his fellow African American citizens were going to do about it. Joseph Popel, who was probably aware of Still’s speech through the resources of Joseph Bustill, responded to Still in a way that he hoped was equally unambiguous and inspiring to his neighbors. His patience in the face of continued hunger, kidnapping, and ignorance was at an end. Joseph Popel’s impatience with apathy and his affirmation of self-reliance was brilliantly conveyed with a blazing multitude of candles in the windows of his house on this rally night.


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88. Ibid., 29 November 1860; Pennsylvania Daily Telegraph, 28 November 1860.

89. Patriot and Union, 27 November 1860.

90. National Anti-Slavery Standard, 18 August 1860.


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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