Although I grew up in Lancaster County and wrote a book about its storied Fulton Theatre, I’d been largely ignorant of its African-American past (and present) until this past weekend, when I joined Joe McGill and members of the Slave Dwelling Project for an overnight stay and series of public events in the county.
In the town of Columbia, where we spent the night, I learned about the surprisingly large enclave of free blacks who settled there before the Civil War—a bold “in-your-face” to whites living south of the Mason-Dixon line (some 15 miles from Columbia) and to the dozens of slave catchers who set up shop in Lancaster County during the first half of the 19th century. Columbia’s blacks seem to have been alternately sheltered and attacked by their white neighbors. (In a troubling prelude to our own times, Columbia’s white working class rioted against the town’s African Americans in 1834—upset that brown people were “taking” their jobs.)
In downtown Lancaster, I learned about 20th-century discrimination against black workers in Hager’s Department Store (“I was just light enough to get a job as an elevator attendant,” remembered Leroy Hopkins, emeritus professor of German at Millersville University). I heard a poignant rendition from performer Amanda Kemp about what it’s like to “walk while black”—protected, to a slight degree, from white fear and aggression by her reassuringly female pink and green ensemble. (Black boys like her son, Kemp said, have no such protection.) On a walking tour of African-American heritage sites in Lancaster, I saw the city through a new and welcome lens.
Missing from most of this, though, was a clear picture of the history of slavery in my home county. Lancastrians are eager to celebrate the county’s decisive role in the Underground Railroad—a result in part of its strategic geography. But what of its less celebratory past? Slavery came to Pennsylvania in 1636, according to Randy Harris (who led the downtown African-American heritage tour), and enslaved people inhabited the city until at least 1840. To the question of whether (and where) enslaved people were auctioned in downtown Lancaster, Randy had no answer. Ditto the matter of where enslaved people lived. Aside from a few documented sites and records—the plantation of the 18th-century slaveholder and Revolutionary War General Edward Hand; letters in which the 18th-century slaveholder (and town magistrate) Edward Shippen described the purchase of an enslaved woman—there’s little physical evidence of Lancaster County’s century-long involvement in slavery.
Randy’s tour included a stop at a pair of underground cisterns where abolitionist Thaddeus Stevens and his mixed-race companion, Lydia Smith, are believed to have housed African Americans fleeing slavery. But the city’s more difficult history—its deep complicity in the slave system, even after Pennsylvania abolished slavery in 1780—remains largely buried. When I was researching my book on the Fulton Theatre, I discovered lists of enslaved African Americans who were incarcerated in the town jail after running away from their “owners” in the early decades of the 19th century. Many were sent back into slavery. I also found newspaper accounts of the thriving cotton mills Lancaster opened in the 1840s—mills that helped perpetuate Southern slavery while boosting the Lancaster economy. Thaddeus Stevens himself praised their role in the city’s fortunes.
The weekend visit by the Slave Dwelling Project was a welcome reminder that, like the slave dwellings Joe McGill is working to preserve, this part of Lancaster’s story demands attention.