October 31, 2023

Black History Along the Chesapeake Watershed in Pennsylvania

A closer look at the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative

Since 2021, the National Trust for Historic Preservation, through the African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, has worked in collaboration with National Park Service Chesapeake Bay, the Chesapeake Conservation Partnership, and the states of Virginia, Pennsylvania, and Maryland to identify and map landscapes and structures significant to Black history as part of the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative (CMI). The history of this region is one of enslavement, civil war, and activism and is where generations of Black Americans have made their living from the waters of the Bay while also looking to the watershed as a place of gathering and recreation.

However, like many resources connected to historically excluded communities, these sites have often been undocumented, something the CMI looked to rectify. Using a range of engagement and crowdsourcing tools, this first round of work for the CMI sought to identify historical resources.

In Pennsylvania, the project focused specifically on the Southcentral region of the state. ASC Group, Inc, in cooperation with partners at WSP USA and the Markosky Engineering Group, Inc. conducted a crowdsourcing project using WikiMapping tools and a website, which focused on working with members of the Black community to identify properties that were important to the state’s heritage.

Paired with public meetings, the project resulted in 222 entries via an online mapping platform, and approximately 206 locations with additional information. Of the 126 records that were selected to be added to the State Historic Preservation Office’s database, 52 were newly identified properties, 47 added contextual information to existing records, 12 were part of historic districts, and 15 were potential archaeological sites.

Exterior of a brick house which is the location of the Goodridge Freedom Center in Pennsylvania

photo by: Laura Ricketts/Markosky

Exterior of the Goodridge Freedom Center in York, Pennsylvania.

“So many African American historic sites along the Chesapeake watershed have already been lost due to the lack of recognition that could have led to their preservation,” said Lawana Holland-Moore, director of fellowships and interpretive strategies for the Action Fund. “By building relationships of trust with the community, this project has shown the impact of community-based participation as a strategy for the future identification and documentation of Black historic resources.”

Below are 7 sites that illustrate the breadth of information and the types of sites identified as part of the crowdsourcing campaign for the Chesapeake Bay watershed in Pennsylvania.

Lebanon Cemetery (North York, York County)

Established in August 1872, this African American cemetery is located on the northern outskirts of York, Pennsylvania. Among those buried at the site are members of the Goodridge and Grey Families, who were conductors on the Underground Railroad, and the family of Olympian John F. Terry. Today the site is supported by a volunteer group known as the Friends of the Lebanon Cemetery that is working to document and tell the stories of the individuals buried at the site.

View of a graveyard for African Americans in York County.

photo by: Ben Harvey/ASC Group

View of Lebanon Cemetery in North York, Pennsylvania.

Exterior of a white church in a grassy lawn in York Pennsylvania.

photo by: Laura Ricketts/Markosky

Exterior view of the Fawn AME Zion Church in York County, Pennsylvania.

Fawn AME Zion Church (York County)

Originally established around 1850, Fawn AME Zion Church was founded by a group of African Americans looking to form their own community after facing segregation and discrimination in a church nearby. When the Civil War began, many of the men in the congregation enlisted in the Union Army, including John Aquilla Wilson, one of the Black militiamen who prevented the Confederates from crossing the Susquehanna River. Wilson, who lived until the age of 101, was buried in the cemetery next to the church alongside 17 other Civil War veterans. Also buried in the cemetery is the Rev. Robert J. Daniel, whose story was submitted as part of the crowdsourcing efforts. He was ordained in 1875 and helped to repair Fawn AME and another church in Peach Bottom.

After the congregation outgrew its building, a new church was built and was completed in 1954, and following a basement flood, it was rededicated in 2017.

Gettysburg Third Ward Neighborhood (Gettysburg, Adams County)

A view of a block of homes in the Third Ward of Gettysburg, a historically Black community.

photo by: Laura Ricketts/Markosky

Exterior of one of the city blocks in the Third Ward of Gettysburg, Pennsylvania.

One of the recommendations from the Pennsylvania crowdsourcing campaign was recognition of the Third Ward Neighborhood in Gettysburg. This area spanning Breckenridge, South Washington, and West High Streets was a dynamic African American neighborhood with families and businesses in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. While more research needs to be conducted, this neighborhood was recommended as a potential new historic district due to the number of individual properties submitted as part of the campaign by the public. Many of these properties were on an 1863 map and directory of African American residences in Gettysburg, and their submission is just the first step in including more perspectives and laying the groundwork for more intensive research in the future.

Goodridge Freedom Center (York, York County)

The Goodridge Freedom Center was the home of William C. Goodridge, a Black entrepreneur who built an emporium in the City of York, which also included a photography studio operated by his sons. What Goodridge is best known for, however, is his work on the Underground Railroad where he helped enslaved people move through his various properties and through rail cars that he owned. The Goodridge Home has a secret room where freedom seekers were hidden as they were moved across the border into Pennsylvania before moving them further North. The Goodridge Freedom Center is on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom trail.

Polite Family Home (Lancaster, Lancaster County)

Exterior of the a home of the Polite Family. The house is gray-blue with a white porch.

photo by: Ben Harvey/ASC Group

Exterior of the Polite Family home in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.

From the 1920s through the present-day, multiple generations of the Polite family have resided at this home on North Street. Their story is one of service to the community, including volunteer social service, religious and fraternal organization support, and leadership in civic and political affairs. During the 1930s and 1940s when traveling during the Jim Crow era was filled with danger for African Americans, Abraham Lincoln Polite and his wife Blanche opened their doors to provide safe harbor.

This was just one of three private homes in Lancaster—and the only one left standing today—that was included in the Green Book. Nelson Polite Sr, who died in 2016, was a Civil Rights leader who protested segregation at pools and downtown stores in the early 1960s.

Barney Ewell Home (Lancaster, Lancaster County)

A view of a mural next to a playground at Ewell Park in Pennsylvania.

photo by: Ben Harvey/ASC Group

Ewell Park, is one of the many sites submitted as part of a crowdsourcing project for the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative in Pennsylvania, associated with Olympian Barney Ewell.

Located in Lancaster County, the Barney Ewell Home on Christian Street was home to Henry Norwood “Barney” Ewell, a World War II veteran and Olympian. At the age of 30, Ewell took home three medals from the 1948 London Olympics—silver medals in the 100-meter and 200-meter races and a gold medal as a member of the United States’ 400-meter relay team.

Prior to his Olympic success, Ewell broke several records, including running the 50-yard dash in 5 seconds in 1939 while a student at Pennsylvania State University, which broke the world record. The home, which is in the Lancaster City Historic District was not originally included in the material denoting the area’s significance. Its inclusion in this crowdsourcing project provided the information necessary to supplement the original documentation and include Ewell’s story.

Yellow Hill Burial Ground (Butler Township, Adams County)

A view of where  Yellow Hill Cemetery in Adams County is located. The image is of a grassy field with three American flags on three different markers.

photo by: Ben Harvey/ASC Group

A view of the site of the Yellow Hill Cemetery in Adams County, Pennsylvania.

In the 19th century, the Yellow Hill Settlement that included dwellings, a church, and cemetery became a stop on two of Pennsylvania’s major routes of the Underground Railroad. One Black farmer, Edward Mathews (d. 1874) joined with white neighbors (specifically members of the Religious Society of Friends) to assist hundreds (maybe more) of freedom seekers reach safety. This site is also located on the National Park Services Underground Railroad Network to Freedom trail.

Today, the only remnant of this community is an archaeological site indicating the remains of the Yellow Hill AME Cemetery. According to the submissions from the crowdsourcing project there is little evidence above ground that this cemetery remained, but ground penetrating radar provides indications of remains that are still interred underground.

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While her day job is the associate director of content at the National Trust for Historic Preservation, Priya spends other waking moments musing, writing, and learning about how the public engages and embraces history.

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