Interview with author George F. Nagel
George F. Nagel has written a two-volume set of books on the history of the black community of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, from colonial days through the Civil War, with a strong focus on the Gettysburg Campaign.
Nagle is the editor of the Afrolumens Project, a web-based collection of local African American historical data. He is a lifelong Harrisburg area resident, a graduate of Harrisburg High and Penn State, and is employed with the Harrisburg School District. His research has been cited in several recently published history books, and he is frequently invited to participate in regional history conferences and panels. In edition to the website, he has just published a two-volume history of Harrisburg’s African American community from the colonial era to the Civil War: The Year of Jubilee.
The Afrolumens Project exists to promote the collection, study, and interpretation of data relating to African American slavery and freedom in central Pennsylvania, and is dedicated to the idea that all Pennsylvania residents share a common history. The focus of this website is on the historical period that begins with European colonization and African slavery in Pennsylvania, and ends with the American Civil War.
Here is my interview with George.
1. Tell us a little about your self and your background and previous publications.
I think of myself as a lifelong Harrisburg resident, which is almost true. I was born, grew up, and educated in Harrisburg, my children were born in the city, and I work for the Harrisburg City School District. Although we now live in Lower Paxton Township, I still consider myself a Harrisburg boy and retain a love of the city’s rich historical heritage. More than a dozen years after high school I decided to give college a try and eventually entered Penn State Harrisburg’s American Studies program, where I was privileged to study under Irwin Richman, Michael Barton, Simon Bronner, Clemmie Gilpin, John Patterson and other very talented professors. That program included an internship with the Historical Society of Dauphin County, under the tutelage of Peter Seibert, and a student position working for Dr. Beverly Palmer in compiling the Thaddeus Stevens Papers. Throughout college, I maintained an interest in African American studies, and was fortunate to have professors who indulged my interests by allowing me to tailor papers and projects toward that specialization.
Although the American Studies program is geared toward a career in formal public history programs, I graduated in a year when all levels of government, it seemed, were cutting back positions and funding in that sector. Already married with a growing family, I remained at my job in the grocery industry and utilized my education by beginning what would become the Afrolumens Project website. It began, in the mid-1990s, as a GeoCities site called “Slavery in Dauphin County,” which quickly expanded to “Slavery in Pennsylvania.” My intent was to document the story of how African American slavery existed, thrived, and eventually died in this state. In 2002 I moved to an independent domain, renamed the site the “Afrolumens Project,” and expanded content to include African American social and community history.
My association with the Civil War studies community grew out of an interest I had in childhood, but which was dormant until a trip to the Gettysburg Battlefield in the mid-1980s. Jim Schmick, Larry and Annette Keener-Farley, Sheldon Munn, Robin Lighty, and others welcomed me into the Camp Curtin Historical Society, and I began to edit their newsletter/journal, The Bugle. Over the years, I have had an number of research articles published in the pages of The Bugle, but The Year of Jubilee is my first published book.
2. What drew you to this story, and how did you go about researching the material?
As the Afrolumens Project began to be known and recognized, I received many invitations to speak to local historical societies, community groups, and schools about African American related historical topics. I soon realized that most people in my audiences, when they heard the talk would be on “Slavery in Pennsylvania,” expected stories about the Underground Railroad. I initially resisted that topic, however, because I did not consider myself an expert in that field. Eventually I gave in, however, and began to research the UGRR to supplement my slavery studies. What I found, to my surprise and delight, were inextricable links between slaves, former slaves, free black communities, and fugitive slaves. The complex relationship between all these groups, along with the dynamics of relations with the politically and socially dominant white community eventually became the basis for The Year of Jubilee.
The book underwent a considerable change of focus, however, with the discovery of local newspaper accounts of the meetings held by Harrisburg’s African American citizenry in response to the Emancipation Proclamation, and of accounts of African American “war meetings” in response to the June 1863 Confederate invasion. I realized the story had to be much more than a traditional narrative of a single social movement (the Underground Railroad). Rather, I envisioned a story of resistance, endurance, and Job-like faith in a better life. I asked myself why a community that had been politically proscribed, socially reviled, and economically downtrodden, would put their families’ lives and future at risk in order to stand and fight for the same city and state that had held them down for so many generations. The book became my attempt to answer that single question.
I was very fortunate to be able to draw upon the immense quantity of research resources already at hand, which I use to provide material for the Afrolumens Project. I also began to scour local historical collections at the State Library and State Archives. In particular, I was looking for social histories and accounts that mentioned, even briefly, the interplay between whites and blacks in Harrisburg in the antebellum years.
3. How typical do you think the reaction of the black community in Harrisburg to the war effort was in comparison to the blacks of Pittsburgh and Philadelphia?
I found many similarities in the responses of African American communities of Harrisburg, Pittsburgh, and Philadelphia to the war. All of these communities had a dedicated core of citizens who responded to the initial war effort with a surge of patriotism. All had, at various times, fundraising events, food or clothing collections, and political rallies. There were also, in the African American communities of all three places, a core of residents who opposed participation and support of the war effort because they felt so isolated from the political process. Pennsylvania had, after all, formally removed their right to vote with the state Constitution of 1838. The Dred Scott decision was still fresh in everyone’s mind, and all still felt a palpable sense of unease from their white neighbors in the wake of the Christiana Resistance, and especially from the Harpers Ferry raid. That lack of support for the war effort manifested itself in the form of dissent at public meetings in all three places, when African Americans rallied in support of sending men to join the Massachusetts regiments.
In scale, Harrisburg was definitely behind its larger neighboring cities of Philadelphia and Pittsburgh, not only in dollars raised by local blacks for USCT charities, but also in the number and size of local patriotic groups. It also seems that support for African American enlistment lagged more, and longer, in Harrisburg, than in either Pittsburgh or Philadelphia, despite the best efforts here of T. Morris Chester and John Wolf. Much of the lack of enthusiasm by Harrisburg’s black men for army life may have stemmed from the contentious relationship between local black citizens and the soldiers stationed at Camp Curtin. Violent or ugly confrontations between soldiers and African American residents of Harrisburg occurred with such regularity that the Patriot and Union and the Telegraph newspapers only reported the most sensational incidents.
Yet in the end, Harrisburg’s blacks rallied magnificently, gathering only days after the horrible May 1863 riot by white soldiers through the black neighborhoods, to send their sons and husbands off to Massachusetts to enlist. That enthusiasm to serve, and to see sons and husbands serve, carried through to volunteering to defend Harrisburg during the invasion, rather than picking up and fleeing town, which would seem to be the most natural reaction. This is the reaction that set Harrisburg blacks apart from their Philadelphia and Pittsburgh neighbors. Of these three locations, only Harrisburg was directly menaced with invasion to the point that enemy soldiers came to within a few miles, and a single day, of overrunning the town. Of course, the African American residents of Columbia exhibited the same level of heroism. Whether African Americans in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh would have reacted similarly is a matter of conjecture.
4. There are many accounts of blacks being taken prisoner by the Confederates in 1863, particularly in Franklin County. That in turn led to a stream of more than a thousand black refugees that headed to Harrisburg, York, and other places of presumed safety. Describe the reaction of Harrisburg’s internal black population to the sudden influx of refugees from the Cumberland Valley.
A Harrisburg journalist wrote, upon witnessing the influx of people of color entering the city, “Wagon load after wagon load of men, women and children poured into the city from morning till night, many of them contrabands and free negroes,…Where many of them go, after reaching this city, we know not.” Most of these refugees, after initially camping on the riverbank, gradually found shelter, food, and other necessities, with the African American residents of Harrisburg. Some, those with the means and strength, kept moving until they arrived in Philadelphia, where they found accommodation with African American families there, but it appears that most stayed in Harrisburg, perceiving the city to be (arguably a false and potentially fatal perception) a safe haven.
Harrisburg’s internal African American residents must surely have been severely taxed by this sudden onslaught of uninvited guests. The city had been absorbing large numbers of incoming fugitive slaves and freed Southern blacks for a number of years prior to the war, and the newcomers stressed the cohesion of the local African American community by causing shortages in housing and employment. In addition, the mostly illiterate, rural Southern blacks who settled in town had little in common with the longtime black residents. The war helped to mediate this division, as all now had a common enemy: uniformed white soldiers. As a result, refugees from the Cumberland Valley were absorbed more readily, almost with a fatalistic sense of duty. Also, the perception was that these refugees were only temporary residents, and would return “up the valley” once the threat had passed.
Some examples that show how Harrisburg blacks coexisted with and contributed to the well-being of the refugees include working side-by-side with the refugees in digging fortifications on Hummel Hill and other sites; invitations to the refugees to worship in local black churches; afternoon reading classes for adults in the Black Masonic Hall (one of the adults who benefited from adult classes while in Harrisburg was twenty-one-year-old Josiah Walls, a Virginia refugee who would become one of the first African Americans to serve in the US Congress); local black residents took responsibility for drawing rations from the army quartermaster department to feed the estimated eighteen hundred “mostly women and children” (Patriot and Union, July 3, 1863) quartered in Tanner’s Alley, Short Street, and other locations. To be fair, some of the stress of caring for these displaced persons, which effectively more than doubled the African American community during this time, was undertaken by military authorities, who sheltered many of the men in the forts as day laborers. However, more than a thousand refugees lingered in Harrisburg long after the threat of battle had passed, to take advantage of the jobs, education, and social institutions offered by the black community.
5. What are the three key lessons for the modern reader to take away from these two fine books?
First: Harrisburg’s African American heritage is much more varied, complex, and fascinating than has been previously portrayed in most local histories. Most of what has previously been written centers on the story of Hercules, the slave and rescuer, according to lore, of John Harris the settler, on the visit to town by Frederick Douglass in 1847, and on the role of Joseph Bustill in the local Underground Railroad. The entire story of the black anti-slavery movement, the development and changing face of the Underground Railroad, Harrisburg’s black entrepreneurs, the role of the black churches, the development of black social institutions, and the fast-changing economic conditions that controlled black society have been ignored or have barely been touched upon by other histories.
Second: Harrisburg’s black history has not been intentionally hidden away or maliciously ignored by historians. Rather, I believe it has been disregarded because it has not previously been viewed as significant enough to include in a local history. I found plenty of fascinating material, much of it in easily accessible archives and libraries. The key was in understanding the value of these often varied bits and pieces, and placing them in their larger social and political context to weave a story.
Third: Connecting with the second key point, is the concept that this is not a black history of Harrisburg during this time, but it is a shared history. This is really my most important point, and the lesson that I hope stands out as primary. Harrisburg was settled, founded, built, worked, maintained, populated, and defended by blacks and whites. You cannot separate these two groups in telling a complete story of the town. Both share equally in its rich and varied past, yet even today, most black residents of the city are alienated from their own past, believing that blacks had little or no role in the city’s history.
6. What’s next? Any manuscripts in progress or in the planning stages?
Yes! Although people have already been asking if I plan to write the next chapter–to take the history beyond 1863–my next manuscript, which I am roughing out now, will be a walking (and perhaps driving) tour of the sites and stories in the book. I hope to have a draft of that project completed fairly quickly, since it will not involve a major amount of additional research. Another project more in the brainstorming stage is a book about what Harrisburg was like at various key points in time–keeping to the antebellum years. Because the city has changed so dramatically, I would like to paint a word and map picture of the town as it was in 1800, 1810, 1820, etc, to 1860. Sort of a decade-by-decade travelogue that describes all of the streets, canals, railroads, merchants, people, animals, smells, noises, and so on. I envision a written/visual tool that could be used in conjunction with the matching census for each decade.