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Underground Railroad museum in York would honor achievements of William C. Goodridge

Crispus Attucks Association’s Cindy Leiphart can be seen in a room in the former home of William C. Goodridge that was reportedly used to hide fugitive slaves as part of the Underground Railroad. A hole in the floor above the room was formerly covered by a trapdoor. Background posts: Stack of books on York County’s Civil War past getting higher and Research needed to unearth Underground Railroad in York County – Part I and 10 years ago, York’s exclusive Lafayette Club became less exclusive, Part III.

The life and times of William C. Goodridge’s former slave who became a successful 19th-century York businessman were filled with controversy.
He and his family developed national applause despite – or maybe because of – these obstacles.
I made that point in an upcoming York Sunday News column (3/01/09) and urge readers to get behind efforts to create a Goodridge Freedom House and Underground Railroad Museum in Goodridge’s former residence.
In addition to honoring this community leader, the museum could become a center for studying York County’s still-obscure Underground Railroad history… .

This monument marks the former Goodridge home in York.
Crispus Attuck Community Center, owner of the house, is seeking donations to complete the project. (For details, call Cindy Leiphart at Crispus Attucks Community Center, 848-3610, ext. 280.)
My column follows:
The evening was billed as an interactive time with ex-slave-turned-businessman William C. Goodridge played by former-York-City-Councilman-turned-living-historian Wm. Lee Smallwood.
My assignment for “An Evening With William C. Goodridge” was to interview Wm. Lee Smallwood, in character as the 19th-century York businessman.
I hit the books to bone up on Goodridge’s life and times so I could keep up with the resurrected entrepreneur.
I’ve read and written a lot about Goodridge over the years, but, as usual, interesting aspects of his life emerged during my review of John V. Jezierski’s “Enterprising Images” and other works.
This homework reminded me that Goodridge and his family obtained greatness despite — or maybe because of — immense obstacles.
That a former slave could operate successful businesses for decades in pre-Civil War York County is an amazing accomplishment.
Jezierski points out that Goodridge and his wife, Evalina, had provided his family with the example and guidance that led to their success as pioneer photographers.
The Goodridges were one of the first families of American photography.
By family tradition, the “C” in William Goodridge’s name stood for “Carroll,” specifically the Maryland Carrolls.
If so, a mulatto youngster from a plantation of that proud family may not have been someone to keep around.
Goodridge’s entry as an indentured servant in York, away from family in Maryland, is well known.
He gained his freedom and started building businesses, anchored by his work as a barber. His businesses eventually demanded a five-story building.
His tall building reportedly led John Hartman to construct a six-story building across York’s Centre Square.
James A. Kell, in a 1927 letter, told of his longtime York County family’s conversations about the prosperous Goodridge and his building: “I don’t know how he accumulated money enough to put up such a house. Well, ‘Johnny’ Hartman declared he would not let a – – – colored man (but he used a more common word)” put up a higher building.
This controversy may be a little overdrawn because Goodridge and Hartman did business together, but one can suspect that a former slave building what amounted to a skyscraper would have generated envy.
Another Goodridge action that must have gained notice was his ownership of a slave in the 1830s. Jezierski explains that might have been a way of giving the slave his freedom, in a manner similar to the way that Goodridge gained his manumission.
This explanation also is likely in light of Goodridge’s later involvement in abolitionist activities and the Underground Railroad.
He became a Whig and then a Republican and was a friend of Frederick Douglass and other abolitionists.
In fact, Jezierski suggests that Goodridge’s work against slavery might have distracted his attention from business matters, leading to his pre-war bankruptcy.
Certainly, as a Republican, Goodridge was fighting against the political tide in Democratic York County.
His family’s status outside the political mainstream led to an incident that showed York at its worst — and its best.
During the war, his photographer-son, Glenalvin, was convicted on a trumped-up charge that he had raped a white woman.
That led to William Goodridge’s months-long campaign during the height of the Civil War to free his son from the penitentiary.
He canvassed the community and received bipartisan support for his son’s release.
Dr. Charles H. Bressler, a prominent York County Republican, wrote a letter to his friend and political ally Pennsylvania Gov. Andrew G. Curtin urging Glenalvin’s pardon.
“There is not a man in our party but is satisfied that he never would have been convicted if he had been a white man and if he had been a Democrat,” he wrote. He also reminded the governor that some of the “hardest Democrats” in York argued against the conviction.
Such efforts led to Glenalvin’s gaining his freedom but not before contracting tuberculosis. And his release came on the condition that he leave York.
That he did, and that led to William Goodridge’s departure as well.
Glenalvin succumbed to TB in 1867, and William Goodridge died in Minneapolis six years later.
The Goodridge legacy lingered in York for decades but was given new life in the past 25 years through the efforts of Wm. Lee Smallwood, the Crispus Attucks Community Center and others.
For years, living historian Smallwood has re-created Goodridge. And he has promoted Goodridge’s former residence as an Underground Railroad Museum.
The community will lose the gifts and talents of Smallwood, who plans to head south to retirement in New Orleans — in the opposite direction taken by his character, William C. Goodridge.
It would be fitting to the memory of Goodridge — and the efforts of Smallwood — that the developing Goodridge Freedom House and Underground Railroad Museum, in search of funds to complete the project, move ahead.