History of Slavery in the
United States

The United States will soon celebrate Independence Day - Birthday 229. However, some folks did not enjoy freedom until after the Civil War. According to history, the first slaves were brought into North America in 1526. That was exactly 400 years before I was born. I survived the Great Depression in the late 1920s through 1930s in the backwoods of Tennessee,  which was not easy, but I did have freedom.

Slavery
(From Wikipedia, the free encyclopedia)
Slavery was the practice of keeping people in servitude against their will and owning them as property, and it had a long history in the United States. The first African slaves arrived in present day United States as part of the San Miguel de Gualdape colony, founded by Spanish explorers in 1526. The ill-fated colony was almost immediately disrupted by a fight over leadership, during which the slaves revolted and fled the colony to seek refuge among local Native Americans. Many of the Spanish colonists died shortly after of an epidemic, and the colony was abandoned, leaving the escaped slaves behind on North American soil. In 1565 the colony of Saint Augustine in Florida became the first permanent settlement in North America, and included an unknown number of African slaves.

Later, English colonization used similar practices, importing 21 slaves from a Dutch frigate to the colony in Jamestown, Virginia in 1619, three of whom are known to have been named Isabella, Antoney and Pedro. Isabella and Antoney had later given birth to a slave boy named William. This "William Tucker" is now considered the first African American born in the English colonies in North America.

Originally, keeping Native Americans and other groups as slaves was tried, but eventually almost all slaves were blacks. During the British colonial period, slaves were used extensively in the Southern colonies, but to a lesser degree in the Northern colonies as well. Early on, the slaves were most useful in the growing of indigo, rice, and tobacco; cotton was only a side crop. Nevertheless, it was clear that slaves were most economically viable in plantation-style agriculture. Many landowners began to grow increasingly dependent on slave labor for their livelihood, and legislature responded accordingly by increasingly stricter regulations on forced labor practices, known as the Slave Codes. Also, to further coerce the slaves into a state of bondage, a method of divide and conquer (e.g. lighter skinned slaves versus those with darker skin) was imperatively used, as such had been redacted from the William Lynch Speech of 1712.

Some of the British colonies placed restrictions on the practice of slavery, others banned it completely, such as Rhode Island in 1774.

The economic value of plantation slavery was reinforced in 1793 with the invention of the cotton gin by Eli Whitney, a device designed to separate cotton fibers from seedpods and the sometimes sticky seeds. The invention revolutionized the cotton-growing industry by increasing the quantity of cotton that could be processed in a day by tenfold. The result was explosive growth in the cotton industry, and a proportionate increase in the demand for slave labor in the South.

Just as demand for slaves was increasing, however, supply was restricted. The United States Constitution, adopted in 1787, prevented Congress from banning the import of slaves before 1808. In that year, Congress acted to ban further imports. Any new slaves would have to be descendants of ones that were currently in the US. One year earlier, British Parliament banned all forms of slave trade within its empire - the United States gained its independence and hence avoided this ban by just a few years.

Historical records indicate that extremely cruel and negligent slave owners existed alongside kinder slave owners. These kinder slave owners provided materially for their slaves and were less inclined to punishment, but they nonetheless denied their slaves the basic rights enjoyed by free people. Not-so-kind slave owners practiced raping the women and children, chopping off the limbs of slaves who tried to run away, and whipping. During this time slave owners started to make a difference in the skin color of the slaves. Darker-skinned slaves worked in the fields, while lighter-skinned slaves or "house negroes" were allowed to work in the house and wore 'civilized' clothing like their slave masters. While essentially all scholars agree that it was a harsh regimen for the slaves, some have noted that the United States slave population was the only slave population in history that actually grew through birth, rather than importation. The interpretation of this fact has been a topic of debate.

Abolishing Slavery
Throughout the first half of the 19th Century, a movement to end slavery, called abolitionism, grew in strength throughout the United States. This reform took place amidst strong support of slavery on the behalf of the South, who began to refer to it as the "Peculiar Institution" in a defensive attempt to differentiate it from other examples of forced labor. There were several strains of aforementioned reform movements. Some wanted to ship the slaves back to Africa, and settle them in a new homeland there (some also wanted to deport any free blacks in the country); a movement of this type led to the foundation of the modern-day nation of Liberia. Others wanted to simply end the practice of slavery, leaving free blacks in the United States. Another divide was over whether or not slave-owners would be compensated for the value of their lost "property." Whatever the talk was about there was no talk about compensating slaves or considering where the slave would like to live once freed. There was further disagreement over the degree of militancy to use. Some abolitionists, such as John Brown, favored the use of armed force to foment uprisings amongst the slaves, while others preferred to use the legal system.

This movement clashed with slave-owners numerous times throughout the century. The first effort to mediate the two was known as the Missouri Compromise of 1820, an attempt to make sure that the two interests were balanced in the United States Senate. When this fell apart, it was replaced by the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, which led to open battle in the states of Kansas and Nebraska; the period is often referred to as "Bleeding Kansas".

A further split occurred in 1845 with the formation of the Southern Baptist Convention (presently one of the largest Christian congregations in the United States), founded on the premise that the Bible sanctions slavery and that it was acceptable for Christians to own slaves (the Southern Baptist Convention has long since renounced this interpretation). Dozens of Bible verses were used to back up this interpretation. This split was triggered by the opposition of northern Baptists to slavery, and in particular by the 1844 statement of the Home Mission Society declaring that a person could not be a missionary and still keep his slaves as property.

The tensions came to a head with the 1860 election of Abraham Lincoln, who was opposed to the expansion of slavery. Many in the South feared that the real intent of the Republicans was the abolition of slavery in states where it already existed, and that the sudden emancipation of 4 million slaves would be problematic. They also feared that the delicate balance of free states and slave states would be no more and that they would then be under the domination of industrial North with its preference for high tariffs on imported goods. The combination of these factors led the South to secede from the Union and thus began the American Civil War. During the Civil War (in 1863), Lincoln issued the Emancipation Proclamation, which freed all slaves in the Confederate States of America (though not in states which had remained part of the Union). Following the war, the Thirteenth Amendment to the United States Constitution was passed, which officially banned slavery and involuntary servitude in the United States.

African-American Marines in World War II
(From Writings by Bernard C. Nalty)

The 51st Defense Battalion at War
Because they were replacing the 7th Defense Battalion, LeGette's former command, already established in the Ellice group, the black Marines turned in all the heavy equipment they had brought with them from Montford Point and boarded the merchantman SS Meteor, which sailed from San Diego on 11 February 1944. Less than a month had elapsed since the last train left North Carolina on the first leg of the journey to war. While Meteor steamed toward the Ellice Islands, the 51st Defense Battalion divided into two components. Detachment A, led by Lieutenant Colonel Gould P. Groves, the executive officer, would garrison Nanomea Island, while the rest of the battalion, under Colonel LeGette, manned the defenses of Funafuti and nearby Nukufetau. By 27 February, the 51st completed the relief of the 7th Defense Battalion, taking over the white unit's weapons and equipment. One of the African-American Marines, upon first experiencing the isolation that surrounded him, suggested that the departing whites "were never so glad to see black people in their lives." A flurry of action briefly dispelled the feeling of loneliness. On 28 March, crews of the 155mm guns at Nanomea responded to the report of a prowling submarine by firing 11 rounds, but the Japanese craft, if actually present escaped unscathed.

Colonel LeGette, who maintained his headquarters at Funafuti, received a letter from the Commandant of the Marine Corps calling attention to the poor condition of the trucks and weapons his battalion had left behind in California. This chilling message tended to confirm LeGette's reservations about the unit. His concerns focused on administrative procedures and the maintenance of equipment, activities that required close supervision by experienced noncommissioned officers, who were scarce in the unit. The battalion commander sought to fix the blame for the shortcomings that had been revealed and to correct them.

To fix responsibility LeGette convened a board of investigation that condemned his predecessor for failing to whip the battalion into shape and recommended a trial by court martial, but Stephenson responded with a spirited rejoinder that fore stalled legal action. Most of the problems that troubled LeGette stemmed from something over which Stephenson had no control the absence of a cadre of veteran black noncommissioned officers, itself the result of racial segregation and the exclusion of African-Americans from the prewar Marine Corps. Despite his successor's complaints, Stephenson considered the 51st Defense Battalion "the finest organization in the whole Negro program in the Marine Corps." Since the men of the unit did not know the details of the controversy involving the two commanders, morale remained high.

LeGette proposed a course of action to correct the flaws he had perceived. His remedy, however, included measures rendered impossible because of the demands of other units for officers and the policy of maintaining segregation in the enlisted force. He would have increased the number of white officers and warrant officers assigned to the unit and avoided the "occupational neurosis" resulting from service with blacks by replacing those officers who desired to leave the battalion. He further recommended the replacement of enlisted men in Categories IV and V with individuals who had scored better in the classification tests, a goal that could have been achieved only by raiding other black units.

The 51st Defense Battalion remained in the Ellice Islands roughly six months. When the black Marines received orders to depart, they carefully cleaned and checked the equipment inherited from the 7th Defense Battalion before turning everything over to the white 10th Defense Battalion. LeGette's unit set sail on 8 September 1944 for Eniwetok Atoll, a vast anchorage kept under sporadic surveillance, and occasionally harassed, by Japanese aircraft. The battalion stood ready to meet this threat from the skies, since it had reorganized two months earlier as an antiaircraft unit, losing its 155mm guns but adding a fourth 90mm battery and exchanging its machine guns and 20mm weapons for a second 40mm battery. The restructured unit kept its searchlights and radar. While the black Marines manned positions on four of the atoll's islands, Colonel LeGette on 13 December handed over the battalion to Lieutenant Colonel Groves. A member of the unit, Herman Darden, Jr., remembered that the departing commander "took us out on dress parade before he left, and stood there with tears in his eyes and told us . . ., 'You have shown me that you can soldier with the best of 'em.'"

The possibility of action lingered into 1945, kept alive by a report of marauding submarines and the possibility of aerial attack. One night, while the men of the 90mm antiaircraft group were watching a movie, the film abruptly stopped. Condition Red; Japanese aircraft were on the way. "I never saw such jubilation in my life," recalled Darden, "for every one responded eagerly. A Marine on a working party unloading ammunition might grumble about lifting a single 90mm round, but with combat seemingly minutes away, men were running around with one under each arm." By dawn, the alert had ended; not even one Japanese aircraft tested the battalions gun crews. "And from that high point on," Darden said, "the mental attitude seemed to dwindle."

Routine settled over Eniwetok, enveloping the unit that Groves now commanded. As one of its sergeants phrased it, "routine got boresome," punctuated only by the occasional crash or forced landing by American planes. A major change occurred on 12 June 1945, when the battalion commander formed a 251-man composite group, under Major William M. Tracy, for duty at Kwajalein Atoll. Two days later, the group consisting of a battery of 90mm guns, a 40mm platoon, and four search light sections boarded an LST for the voyage. The contingent saw no combat at Kwajalein, nor did the remainder of the battalion at Eniwetok.

The Death March
Fraser Road would figure in one of the legends of Montford Point, the so-called Death March. One of the black Marines living in the ramshackle barracks formerly occupied by the Civilian Conservation Corps grew bored and used his bayonet to punch a hole in a wall, which had all the durability of cardboard. The noncommissioned officers questioned the men, who refused to identify the person guilty of the vandalism. As a result, the sergeants staged a nighttime forced march - the Death March in the lore of the Montford Point Marines - but this failed to elicit the name they sought. According to one account, when the column reached the site of the brig on Fraser Road, the black Marines decided that to go further would dishonor the memory of a dead comrade, Corporal Gilbert Fraser, Jr., who was killed in a training accident. They broke ranks, rushed the brig, and demanded to be arrested, or so the legend states. Since the number of potential prisoners would have been far too many for the structure to accommodate, they were "hanging out the windows," one of the black Marines has declared. The non-commissioned officers marched them back to the huts. Whatever the details, the incident became the source of pride and further intensified the solidarity among Montford Point's African-American Marines.

The Route West
The 51st Defense Battalion's move across a segregated America began with a confrontation in Atlanta, Georgia, where one of the trains stopped so the men could have breakfast. Unaware of the layout of the Jim Crow railroad station, the noncommissioned officers moved the black Marines into a waiting room reserved for whites, only to be halted by white military police determined to uphold local law. The African-Americans stood ready to push their way through, but the train commander arrived, conferred with the officer in charge of the MPs, and prevented a tense situation from turning violent.

Elsewhere, the move to the West Coast went more smoothly. During a rest stop at Big Springs, Texas, one of the officers warned that this was Jim Crow country and urged the black Marines to be careful. They swarmed over the small town, however, and encountered no open hostility, obtaining service at the soda fountain or shooting pool at the facilities maintained for troops whose trains stopped at Big Springs. Further west, during a two-hour layover at Yuma, Arizona, Red Cross volunteers distributed candy, ice cream, fruit, magazines, and Bibles. One of the African-Americans, John R. Griffin, got the impression that "the entire city, including the Mexicans and Indians, came to the station to see the first Negro Defense Battalion go overseas."

At Camp Elliott, California, where the battalion made its final preparations for deployment to the Pacific, the racial climate more closely resembled Atlanta than Yuma or Big Springs. At an open-air movie, Jim Crow seating prevailed and the black Marines were ordered to the rear of the natural amphitheater that served as a theater. A spontaneous protest resulted in the expulsion of the men of the 51st, whose anger still boiled when they arrived at the battalion area. Stephenson tried to make up for the mistreatment of his Marines by liberally granting passes so they could find entertainment in nearby San Diego.

Fugitive Slave Incidents in Central Pennsylvania
(From writings of George F. Nagle)

As a border state between the free North and slave holding South, Pennsylvania was a key part of many escape routes for northern-bound runaway slaves in the years before the Civil War. The Underground Railroad traced some of its most important “lines” from the Mason-Dixon line through many quiet south-central Pennsylvania farming communities, northward to the relative safety of the New York state border.

Although in a free state, runaway slaves could not relax once inside of Pennsylvania's borders.  Federal and state laws guaranteed the right of southern slave holders to pursue and recover their “property” on northern soil. Only the national border dividing Canada and the United States provided a real barrier to slave-catchers and safety for fleeing slaves. Despite the dangers, however, many slaves felt secure enough in Pennsylvania to settle down and begin a new life, taking jobs in towns and cities that already had sizable free Black populations. As a result, in the two decades prior to the Civil War, the African American population in south central Pennsylvania swelled with a mixture of freeborn Blacks and resettled fugitive slaves.

In towns such as Harrisburg, York, Lancaster, Columbia, and Carlisle, the transformation of a growing African American population into a tightly knit Black community happened fairly quickly once Blacks broke free of dependence on local whites for housing and employment. Black churches, businesses and property holders all emerged in the 1830's, creating conditions for several vibrant and healthy African American communities across central Pennsylvania. In addition to providing employment, housing, social interaction and religious solace, these communities provided some insulation from white hostility, and more importantly, protection from the southern slave hunters who frequently ventured into them.

That protection most often consisted of hiding fugitive slaves until safe passage could be arranged for their journey further northward, or finding work and shelter for those who decided to take their chances and become a part of the community.  The latter strategy was based upon the concept of establishing long-term residence in a free state, thus nullifying any claim of ownership that a southern slaveholder might have should he discover the fugitive's whereabouts years later.  This concept was not based upon legal precedent, but rather drew strength from African notions of a village as a means of mutual protection.

Despite the support offered by the surrounding African American community, fugitive slaves were occasionally located by persistent slave holders and remanded to slavery after trial before a federal judge. Although local African Americans usually observed the proceedings and frequently assembled in large, agitated groups outside of the courthouse, violence between slave holders and free Blacks was rare. The surrounding white community exhibited little interest in the plight of those former local residents bound for the return to slavery, and only became involved when the outrage of local Blacks threatened to disrupt order in the community. The passage of the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, however, changed the ways in which each group reacted to incursions by southern slave catchers.  The authoritarian measures of the law threatened the security of the African American community and intimidated and angered many local whites. It also widened the ideological divide between the northern and southern states and set the scene for numerous incidents along the way toward a sectional clash.

Local Slavery Traditions
Black slaves existed and were held in Pennsylvania from its earliest years as a British colony.  The first Quaker settlers bought the entire slave cargo of the merchant ship Isabella, consisting of 150 Africans, in 1684. Prior to that, a few African slaves existed in the region populated by the Dutch, Swedes and Finns.  In central Pennsylvania, slaves were held chiefly by the wealthier and established residents of each county, and were used for agricultural, industrial and domestic work. Runaway slaves were not uncommon during the colonial period, and local residents generally accepted the enslavement of Negroes as a fact of daily life.

Advertisements for the runaway slaves of local slave holders existed side by side with those for the runaway slaves of Maryland and Virginia slave holders in local and locally read newspapers.  Central Pennsylvania residents who took the time to either return slaves or alert the slave holders to the fugitive's location frequently collected rewards for their efforts.  County sheriffs jailed suspected runaways and published advertisements seeking a restitution of costs from the owners.

While slaveholding in Central Pennsylvania remained firmly entrenched through the Revolutionary War, support for the practice was waning in Philadelphia. The new state legislature, which was influenced and dominated by a younger generation of revolutionary-minded Quakers, in March 1780, passed the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.  This act did not free any currently held slaves, but stipulated that all children of slaves born after the passage of the act would be free upon reaching their 28th birthday.  In this manner, Pennsylvania was to gradually abolish slavery while protecting the property rights of its current slave holders.  This inconsistent effort regarding abolition was characteristic of the attitude that most white central Pennsylvanians held toward slavery during the next seventy years.

Nevertheless, slavery did fade in central Pennsylvania.  Census figures for Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry and York counties show a diminishing population of slaves-for-life from 1790 through 1840, with the most dramatic decreases occurring between 1810 and 1820, and 1830 and 1840.  As local slaves died or were emancipated by slave holders, Negro slavery became increasingly associated with the south, and reports of fugitive slaves always seemed to involve Blacks from the neighboring states of Maryland and Virginia.

Early Fugitive Slave Incidents
The first widely reported incident of involvement by Harrisburg's free Black community in the plight of a fugitive slave came in April 1825 when a Maryland slaveholder in search of one of his runaway slaves entered town, located the fugitive and had the man jailed until a trial could be held.  Word of the capture spread through the town's small Black population and, according to early historian Luthor Reily Kelker, “a large number of local colored people…armed with clubs, and exhibit[ing] a menacing appearance” waited outside of the courthouse until the slaveholder and captured fugitive left the building at the conclusion of the trial.

Another reporter described the crowd as “tumultuous,” and “desperate,” writing, “they came streaming in hot haste,” but were not successful in rescuing the fugitive.  Kelker noted that one of the would-be rescuers was shot in the arm when he landed a punch on the slaveholder, and another scuffle occurred at the public house where the slaveholder took the slave in preparation for the journey back south.  Local authorities moved in and arrested sixteen local Blacks, twelve of whom were convicted and sentenced to hard labor.

Although southern slave holders would pursue their slaves into south-central Pennsylvania communities through the next several decades, it would be twenty-five years before Harrisburg Blacks again organized en masse to attempt another rescue.  This twenty-year lack of spectacular attempted rescues did not indicate a lack of activity regarding fugitive slaves, however.  Some incidental evidence exists that indicates a readiness on the part of the town's Black community to respond to emergencies.  State historian Frederic A. Godcharles recorded that in 1842 a “great mob of Negroes” attacked some slave catchers with clubs and stones.  Five years later, he relates, in November 1847, ten fugitive slaves hiding in Dr. William Rutherford's barn in present-day Paxtang were cornered by four Marylanders who had tracked them to the hiding place.  A tense standoff occurred until nightfall when some of the slaves were able, with the aid of several local Black Underground Railroad “conductors,” to make their escape.  Meanwhile, another group of Harrisburg Blacks arrived to aid the fugitives, having been alerted to the standoff by one of the UGRR agents, but by the time of their arrival the slave catchers were gone.

Efforts both covert and legal were undertaken to either hinder or aid escaping slaves in the north.  The mid-1830's is believed by historians to be the birth of the organized Underground Railroad system in Lancaster County.  Pennsylvania lawmakers also worked to get around the federal 1793 Fugitive Slave Act with laws passed in 1826 and 1847, both attempting to regulate the process of reclaiming fugitive slaves.  The 1826 statutes, called the Personal Liberty laws, required documentation of ownership by slaveholders in order to make a valid claim on their wayward slaves.  But these requirements were mild in relation to the 1847 act, which prohibited the kidnapping of Blacks, the use of unnecessary force in their apprehension, and the use of Pennsylvania jails as holding places before the mandated habeas corpus hearing.  Furthermore, it forbade the participation by any officer of the state in assisting with the capture of fugitive slaves or the enforcement of the 1793 federal act, or even to take cognizance of any case that arose as a result of that act.

These sweeping laws were a direct result of the 1842 Supreme Court decision in Prigg vs. Pennsylvania, in which Pennsylvania's Personal Liberty Laws, and all state fugitive slave laws, were declared unconstitutional because of a constitutional clause declaring that no fugitive slaves could find haven anywhere in the Union.  Writing the opinion for the majority, Justice Joseph Story specifically cited the clause on interstate extradition that upheld the constitutionality of the 1793 federal law.  Enabling legislation passed by the states, according to Justice Story, was unnecessary because the extradition clause was self-executable and the 1793 federal law merely acted as supplemental interpretation.  Pennsylvania's 1826 law, by requiring documentation of ownership, not only violated the constitution's extradition clause, but, by placing undue additional burden of proof on the slave owners, also violated the 1793 federal law and thus became doubly unconstitutional.

Finally, Justice Story bowed to states' rights pressures and ruled that although state officials could and should uphold the 1793 Fugitive Slave Law, they were not compelled to do so.  This became the basis for the non-compliance features of the 1847 state law, which was carefully written so as not to contravene the high court's decision.  This was the first northern state fugitive slave law passed in response to Prigg vs. Pennsylvania and it reflected the growing anger and frustration by northern legislatures attempting to protect their Black citizens.

First Test in Carlisle
The 1847 Pennsylvania law was barely on the books when Dickinson College professor John McClintock, while attending a hastily arranged habeas corpus hearing in the Carlisle courthouse for three Blacks held by a pair of Hagerstown, Maryland slave holders, witnessed, in his words, “a melee in the courtroom, the nature of which I did not understand.”  Arriving in the courtroom toward the end of the hearing, McClintock had been unaware of the rising tension between local Blacks and the sheriff and deputies who quite openly sided with the Marylanders.  Hours earlier George Norman, a Carlisle resident and free husband of the detained slave Hester, had attempted to rescue his wife as she was being jailed prior to being remanded back to slavery.  In the hours between that first small rescue attempt and the beginning of the hearing, the size of the crowd of local Blacks waiting outside of the courthouse grew to such an extent, and their mood seemed so defiant, that five local whites were deputized to aid the sheriff and his assistant in maintaining order and guarding the three prisoners.

Not long after McClintock entered the courtroom and seated himself with the counsel for the slaves, some Blacks in the back of the courtroom rushed the prisoners' box, again with the intention of rescuing Hester.  Robert McCartney, assistant to Sheriff Jacob Hoffer, pulled a pistol and threatened to shoot anyone who did not back away.  The judge cleared the courtroom and all of the observers were pushed down the stairs and into the street.  McClintock witnessed a local Black man, an acquaintance, being menaced by one of the deputies near the door and a little later saw an elderly Black woman being accosted by two toughs.  In both cases the professor came to their rescue by intimidating the attackers with legal threats.

McClintock went to his room for a copy of the recent 1847 law that prohibited compliance by state officers in the capture and detaining of fugitive slaves, as well as the detention of fugitive slaves in state jails.  As he returned to the courthouse he saw the slaves being led from the courthouse into a waiting carriage.  A melee erupted and rocks, sticks and bricks were thrown.  The slaves made a break down an alley and the slave catchers chased after them, with most of the crowd following.  In the stampede and fighting, the slaveholder who claimed Hester, James Kennedy, was trampled.  Another man, a bystander, was injured in the fighting.  Kennedy's injuries were said to be not dangerous, but on June 23rd, exactly three weeks after the riot, he unexpectedly died of his injuries.  McClintock and thirty-four Black citizens of Carlisle were indicted for riot, rescuing slaves lawfully in possession of their owners, and assault and battery.

The incident has come to be known as the McClintock Slave Riot, but the college professor barely had a hand in the event.  Carlisle's Black community had quickly organized through word of mouth and assembled in force to attempt a rescue of the wife of one of their members.  The trial began August 25th and a verdict of guilty was returned against thirteen of the Black defendants several days later, with acquittals for all the rest.  Eleven of those found guilty were sentenced to three years in solitary confinement at Eastern Penitentiary, but the Supreme Court reversed the sentence a year later as being unduly harsh and unfair.

Harrisburg Incidents
As in Carlisle, the Harrisburg constabulary routinely ignored the non-compliance provisions of the 1847 act.  In September 1849, two slave catchers chased and caught one of a family of five fugitives who had made it to Harrisburg, and attempted to drag the man to the Camelback Bridge, they apparently having reinforcements on the Cumberland County side.  The fugitive was rescued by two local Black men who sent him and his family to hide in the Tanner Alley neighborhood until evening, when they could be safely conducted further north.  Fearing a raid by the slave catchers on the neighborhood, a watch of twenty-five or thirty citizens was set up at Short Street to safeguard the fugitives for the night.  

County sheriff Jacob Shell, in company with several deputies, ordered the Blacks to disperse.  When they refused, a scuffle ensued.  The outnumbered sheriff called upon a local militia company for assistance, which assembled at Third and Market Streets by 11 p.m. and marched upon the neighborhood.  Finding the watch disbanded, the militiamen arrested what few Blacks they could find in the vicinity, beating several who resisted and firing upon at least one who fled.  Despite the militia's success in scattering the watch group, the slave catchers were unable to find the fugitives the next day.  Harrisburg's Black community expressed outrage at Sheriff Shell's actions, believing him to have overstepped his authority in accommodating the slave catchers.

Nearly one year later Harrisburg's constabulary would again summon the militia to quell riotous Blacks in what would be the town's largest uprising by its African American community against invading slave catchers.  On August 17, 1850, Harrisburg constable Solomon Snyder arrested three Blacks on charges of horse theft brought by two Virginia men.  By the time the three accused men were brought before Dauphin County Judge John J. Pearson on August 23 for a hearing, Harrisburg's Black community had arranged a considerable legal defense, hiring local attorneys Mordecai McKinney and Charles Coatesworth Rawn.  The Virginians had in turn hired three Harrisburg lawyers to represent their interests.  The hearing took the entire day, during which a restless crowd gathered outside of the courthouse.

Judge Pearson waited until the next day, August 24th, to rule on the case.  The crowd of mostly local African Americans returned early in the morning, anticipating an unfavorable ruling.  Their agitated mood unnerved the sheriff, who called up a company of fifty militiamen to maintain order.  The militia was nearly assembled by the time Judge Pearson ruled that that, although the horse-stealing charge was groundless and clearly a ruse to force the state to hold the fugitives, the Virginia slave holders could take custody of their slaves if they could preserve the peace in doing so.  Hoping to avoid the crowd outside, the slave holders began to handcuff the slaves as soon as they left the courtroom.  Their efforts were met with cries and resistance from the slaves, and the Virginians began to beat the slaves in an effort to subdue them, which was the worst thing they could have done in the tense situation.

One man in the street, Joseph Pople, broke from the crowd and charged up the stone steps of the courthouse, brandishing a large stick.  Pople struggled with the slave catchers and succeeded in prying open the heavy iron door to the jail entrance, allowing one of the fugitives to make an escape.  The Virginians beat Pople and forced him back into the street, then turned to the remaining two slaves, whom they beat terribly before handcuffing them.  Although no one in the noisy crowd attempted to storm the jail entryway again, their menacing presence kept the Virginians from chasing down the escaped slave.  Blacks on the balcony of the nearby Exchange Building threw bricks and stones at the southerners and in the confusion a group of perhaps twenty Blacks sped off with the escaped fugitive east on Walnut Street toward Capitol Hill.  Meanwhile, the militia rolled out a cannon from the arsenal and set it up at the intersection of Third and Walnut Streets.

With the potential for a much bloodier confrontation looming, the crowd, intimidated by the fieldpiece and unwilling to see a repeat of the previous year's tangle with local militiamen, slowly melted away.  Judge Pearson ordered the immediate arrest of the slave catchers and the two remaining slaves and issued warrants for the arrest of nine local Blacks on charges of creating a riot.  By the time that the habeas corpus hearing for the slaves arrived, the provisions of the new Fugitive Slave Law of 1850 had gone into effect, allowing the owner of the two remaining slaves to retrieve them without incident.  They were taken out of town with the help of a federally appointed posse of Harrisburg men.  The trial of the Virginians in November ended in not guilty verdicts, and the nine Harrisburg Blacks escaped trial due to the efforts of several leading white citizens of the town who petitioned Judge Pearson for a dismissal of the case.

The Fugitive Slave Act of 1850
In sharp contrast to the August hearing, the two fugitive slaves were taken south in September with no commotion.  This was a direct result of the new provisions set forth in the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  Passed as part of the Compromise of 1850 and signed into law by President Fillmore on September 18, the act was the southern response to the Pennsylvania Fugitive Slave Act of 1847 and similar obstructionist laws passed by other northern states.

The new law provided sweeping changes in the method of dealing with fugitive slave cases, providing for a specially appointed federal commissioner to hear cases instead of state courts.  The process would involve a hearing before the commissioner, instead of a trial, with only the sworn testimony of the slaveholder or agent required to secure possession of the slaves.  The slaves were not permitted to testify at all, and did not have the right to legal counsel or to call witnesses to testify on their own behalf.  An attorney could speak for the defendants, but because no notice of the hearing was required, most accused fugitives had no time to secure help.  Indeed some hearings in Harrisburg were held in the pre-dawn darkness and in one instance local attorneys McKinney and Rawn rushed almost directly from bed to the commissioner's office, only to be refused time to prepare a defense.

In addition to the hearing changes, the new law mandated that all citizens must help enforce the law, and the harboring of fugitives or the obstruction of the law was punishable by a fine or imprisonment.  It supported the appointment of federal posses to escort slave holders and their slaves back to the south.  Perhaps most controversial was the fee system, which seemed to amount to a federally sanctioned bounty on captured slaves.  Federal commissioners who returned alleged slaves to slave holders received fees of ten dollars per slave returned, but only a five-dollar total fee if he released the captives.

Appointed by U.S. Chief Justice Roger B. Taney on September 30, 1850, Harrisburg's United States Commissioner was local lawyer Richard McAllister, who approached his new appointment with unabashed pro-southern sympathies.  One of his first actions after releasing the two fugitives from the August riot to their Virginia owners was to issue a warrant to several slave catchers for six fugitives known to be living in Wilkes-Barre.  The capture of the slaves, reported in the anti-slavery National Era, bemoaned the fact that little could be done on the part of the slaves due to “the charter of abominations, The Fugitive Slave Law.”  In October, in two separate incidents, Black women in Harrisburg were seized by white slave hunters.  In both instances the women were not taken south, but only because they could quickly prove their free status.  In November Commissioner McAllister issued a warrant for four alleged fugitives known to be in town.  Constable Solomon Snyder and John Sanders arrested the men, and, without even bothering with a hearing, took the captives immediately to the professed owner in Baltimore to collect a $1,000 reward.  This blatant circumvention of the hearing process brought strong protests from Harrisburg's Black community.  Two Black citizens brought charges of kidnapping against Snyder and Sanders, but the pair escaped punishment in the April 1851 trial.

McAllister heard numerous cases during the next year, beginning in January with a Virginian who claimed a local young man, David, as his property.  David was returned with the slaveholder without protest.  In April, however, Constable Snyder and another local man, Michael Shaeffer, arrested an entire family.  Daniel Franklin, his wife Abby, daughter Caroline and an infant were brought before Commissioner McAllister as the property of two separate slave holders in Maryland.  The Franklins had escaped together two years prior, settled in the large Black community at Columbia, Lancaster County, where the infant child was born.

As the family was led through the darkened, pre-dawn streets of Harrisburg, to the Commissioner's office, word of the capture spread quickly through Harrisburg's Black community.  In was in this instance that attorneys McKinney and Rawn were awakened with the news, and who rushed to McAllister's office only to be denied time to learn the situation and prepare a defense.  A reporter from the Philadelphia Ledger wrote, “The thoroughfares of this usually demure borough were again thronged, early this morning, with an excited and threatening populace—the colored community.  From the clenched teeth of one and all was hissing forth the news that a man and wife, and a baby, had arrived in their midst in custody as fugitive slaves, and were about to be remanded by the Commissioner.”  Another reporter portrayed a sense of desperation on the part of Harrisburg Blacks at the dramatic events unfolding before their eyes, naming community leader William Jones and others who “rushed around the corners a little,” unable to help the fugitives.  The Franklin's infant child, being born free in Pennsylvania, was taken by family friends, but the rest of the family was returned south with a young man representing the two slave holders.

A man named Bob Sterling was brought before Commissioner McAllister in August 1851 as the property of a female slaveholder, who, upon observing the crowd of Blacks who gathered around the office during the hearing, requested that the commissioner assist her in getting her slave back home.  Harrisburg Blacks were quickly learning the value of making public demonstrations, at least in numbers, as a show of protest against the law, and of support for the fugitives.  In this case, the slaveholder's fears did not prove groundless.  Because she was not taking Sterling home until the next day, she lodged him in a local hotel, Pennsylvania jails still being denied to slave holders as holding areas, and during the night a fire was set in the hotel, probably as a crude attempt to make a rescue.  It failed, however, and the woman returned south with her slave.

Any fugitive slave cases in Harrisburg in September 1851 paled against the events in Lancaster County that month.  Maryland slaveholder Edward Gorsuch, backed by U.S. Marshalls, surrounded the Christiana home of William Parker, a Black community leader and an escaped slave himself.  Parker had previously vowed not to surrender any fugitives to the law, openly defying one of the key components of the 1850 act.  Parker's wife Eliza Ann sounded an alarm and local Blacks, who had been planning a defense, flocked to the scene.  Gorsuch was killed by a gunshot blast and three members of his party were wounded.  Parker and the fugitive slaves were forced to flee to Canada.  The situation was so serious that President Fillmore dispatched a company of U.S. Marines to reinforce a contingent of Philadelphia police that had been hastily dispatched to restore order.

Fallout from the Christiana Revolt did not affect Harrisburg immediately, but it appears Commissioner McAllister saw an opportunity to use the white community's fear of Black uprisings to his advantage.  In October 1851 four Blacks were arrested on the charge of complicity in murder for having participated in the Christiana uprising.  At McAllister's request, Judge Pearson postponed their hearing for one day.  The following day, Pearson , finding no evidence against the men, dismissed all charges and lambasted the magistrate for false imprisonment.  McAllister and District Attorney James Fox both admitted wrongdoing in the matter, yet immediately handcuffed the men and took them across the street to McAllister's office where a party of southern slave holders awaited.  A brief hearing behind closed doors followed, after which the slaves left with the slave holders for the south.

This incident was widely reported upon in local newspapers and picked up by both the pro-slavery and anti-slavery newspapers.  An anonymous source reported that McAllister, knowing from circulars that the four men were runaway slaves, had them imprisoned on the false Christiana charges and delayed the proceedings until he could notify the owners in Baltimore to quickly come to Harrisburg to claim the men.  The source also reported that McAllister accompanied the large posse, appointed to intimidate the usual gathering of local Blacks, with the slaves and slave holders back to Baltimore where he collected an $800 reward.

If 1851 was a year of fear and uncertainty for Harrisburg Blacks, 1852 was worse. Christiana's bloodshed was still fresh in everyone's mind; the acquittal of the lone defendant who came to trial and the dismissal of charges against the others produced a fierce determination to resist in Blacks throughout the state, and a bitter resentment in southern minds.  The furor had not yet subsided when two sisters, Rachel and Elizabeth Parker, were kidnapped from their Chester County homes and taken to Maryland.  Elizabeth was almost immediately sold into slavery and later turned up in New Orleans, while Rachel and her kidnapper were followed by a party of friends, one of whom was Joseph Miller, with whose family she had been living for six years.  Miller located Rachel in a slave pen in Baltimore, then brought her assailant, Thomas McCreary, before a magistrate on kidnapping charges.  Miller was on his way home with friends when he became separated from them and was waylaid and murdered.  Rachel spent more than a year in Maryland prisons while the competing state courts tried to find a solution that would satisfy everyone.  In the end, Maryland courts agreed to declare Rachel and Elizabeth free women in exchange for a dismissal of all charges by Pennsylvania courts against McCreary and those under investigation for Miller's murder.

Long before that legal compromise, which ended up pleasing no one, another outrageous murder occurred in Columbia.  In May 1852, Harrisburg's Solomon Snyder and Henry Lyne, accompanying Baltimore police officer A.D. Ridgely with a warrant for a fugitive slave believed to be living in Columbia, found their man working at a lumberyard in that town.  Snyder and Ridgely took hold of the man, William Smith, who apparently struggled somewhat before Ridgely drew a pistol and shot him in the neck.  The bullet severed his jugular vein and Smith died within two minutes.  Ridgely agreed to give himself up, but instead fled to Maryland, and the two Harrisburg lawmen returned to Pennsylvania.  Inflamed Pennsylvania newspapers called for Ridgely's arrest and murder trial, while Maryland newspapers printed the Baltimore policeman's version of events that involved shooting Smith accidentally, then changing it later to self-defense.  The incident received national attention and Maryland's Governor Lowe, still under pressure in the Miller murder case, appointed two commissioners to make an investigation and confer with Pennsylvania's Governor Bigler.

In the end, Ridgely was not prosecuted.  Pennsylvania's Attorney General declined to pursue charges, based upon another incident involving a young free Black child from Harrisburg.  Young John Johnson, missing for several months, was located in Baltimore as the property of a Mr. Petherbridge, who bought the child's time to age twenty-one from the local jailor. How the young boy got to Baltimore has never been determined, but his new owner demanded $100 for his return to Pennsylvania. Johnson's mother, unable to raise the money, appealed for help locally.  Commissioner McAllister, seeing an opportunity to repair his much maligned reputation, agreed to intercede on the boy's behalf and wrote a letter to the two Maryland commissioners investigating the Columbia murder.  He appealed to them to return the child to his mother, which they were successful in doing.  Characterized in the Frederick Douglass Paper as “a peace offering to Pennsylvania,” the incident ended happily for the Johnson family, and also had the effect of ending the legal aspects of the Columbia murder case.  It did nothing to end the fear and resentment felt by Black communities in Pennsylvania, who viewed the agreements that ended the John Johnson and the Rachel Parker cases, as political ransom.

“Kidnapping” and “ransom,” inflammatory words used freely in the Parker and Johnson cases, were particularly apt in the James Phillips case, which began just as those other cases had ended.  Phillips, a well-known Harrisburg teamster, had lived in the town for many years and was married with two small children.  Two Virginians, a Mr. Hudson and a Mr. Vowles, came to town in June 1852 and had Phillips arrested as a fugitive slave from their client.  They claimed that Phillips had escaped in 1833, and that they remembered him, despite the passage of nineteen years.  McAllister frustrated every attempt made by attorneys McKinney and Rawn to defend Phillips, and, in defiance of the still valid 1847 state law forbidding the use of Pennsylvania jails to hold fugitive slaves, sent Phillips to the Harrisburg jail until the southerners could take him back to Virginia the next morning.

Again the Black citizens of Harrisburg turned out in large numbers, vocal in their protest of the injustice they saw, and menacing the office of Commissioner McAllister.  No violence erupted, however.  The difference this time was that, although most of the crowd was Black, the feelings of injustice began to penetrate into many in Harrisburg's white community as well.  Not long after he had been taken south, a letter arrived in the Harrisburg post office from Richmond, addressed to Mary Phillips.  The letter, dated June 20, 1852, was from her husband James, who wrote, “I am now in a trader's hands, by the name of Mr. Branton, and he is going to start South with a lot of negroes in August.  I do not like this country at all, and had almost rather die than to go South.  Tell all of the people that if they can do anything for me, now is the time to do it.  I can be bought for $900.” White residents of Harrisburg began a fundraising drive to buy back Phillips, and attorney Rawn traveled to Richmond where he was able to purchase the Harrisburg man's freedom for $800.

Political Fallout
Commissioner Richard McAllister and his constables were roundly hated in Black communities throughout central Pennsylvania and were regularly lambasted in widely distributed anti-slavery newspapers.  That unpopularity did not necessarily extend to the white community, though, in the first year after the passage of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850, but it definitely increased in 1852 with the number of fugitive slave incidents, escalating levels of violence, public demonstrations and charges of improper and illegal behavior in carrying out the duties of their office.  White dissatisfaction with the way in which borough officials were complying with the federal law manifested itself at the polls the following year.  In an unusually high turnout, the three borough constables who had assisted McAllister in catching fugitive slaves were turned out of office in March 1853.  McAllister himself, although an appointed official, began to feel the heat and looked to newly elected Democratic president, Franklin Pierce, for a new higher appointment.  He was disappointed in his quest in Washington, though, and not long after returning to Harrisburg, resigned his position as slave commissioner.  The post was not filled and slave catchers were forced to turn to Commissioner Ingraham in Philadelphia as the closest sympathetic federal authority.

Without federally sanctioned protection, former constables Snyder and Loyer soon found themselves in trouble as they pursued their slave-catching activities.  A Lancaster grand jury indicted them in 1853 on charges of kidnapping a free Black citizen, and although they were found not guilty, the fact that they had to stand trial was a move forward in the eyes of the Black community.  Snyder apparently did not learn his lesson from that experience, being charged in 1855 with attempting to kidnap a Harrisburg man, George Clark.  This time, Snyder was convicted and sentenced to six years in prison.

Fugitive slave incidents in central Pennsylvania fell off sharply after the resignation of Richard McAllister and the imprisonment of Solomon Snyder.  Fugitive slaves continued to escape in increasing numbers into the Underground Railroad system that operated through this area, and Southern slave holders continued to pursue them, but found considerably less aid from local lawmen despite the provisions of the Fugitive Slave Law of 1850.  Events were transpiring nationally that would soon make the 1850 law virtually unenforceable, and place north and south in irreconcilable positions.

For Harrisburg's Blacks, and Black communities throughout the mid-state, the lessons of the previous two decades were clear.  Safety could be found only in strong, organized communities that were willing to resist unjust laws by any means.  Tactics such as hiding fugitives and public demonstrations, combined with a good communications network and influential white allies were key to survival in the turbulent years before the war. 

Contact Noah at:
Noah@SemperFidelisNoah.com

(Archive - Week of June 25, 2005)

000Noah's ARKives



Autobiography


Previous Articles


World History & Politics


Man / Woman's
Best Friend
(My Sir Winston)


Cooking

The Few. The Proud.

U.S. Marine Scrapbook

Links

U.S. Constitution

Build Your
Own Web Site

Current Events


Your Opinions


Home