Embattled Freedom

White Abolitionists, Black Fighters of Waverly, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

My latest research project has me and a history partner looking into a nearly-forgotten Union army camp that existed near Philadelphia in 1864-65. We’ve unearthed some memorable tidbits. Let me share several.

Out of Andersonville. It turns out that almost a third of the Pennsylvania soldiers who went through the camp were fresh survivors of Andersonville, the hellacious Confederate prisoner of war stockade. As I’ve boned up generally on Andersonville, I’ve also been alert for indications of the black experience there.  Writing Embattled Freedom has left me “woke” in that way.  And the evidence is there. For instance, one soldier-survivor we’ll be profiling recalled that when he arrived at the prison in Georgia, one of the first things he saw was a collection of slaveholders’ torture devices at the ready. His prison diary, published later in life, described “thumb-screws, barbed iron collars, shackles, ball and chain” and three kinds of body-breaking stocks.  “These instruments of torture were brought from where they had evidently been used to hold slaves in obedience,” he wrote. “Our prison keepers seemed to handle them with familiarity.” Slave gangs had already been forced to clear the pine woods for the Andersonville grounds. Then they’d constructed the stockade walls around it. And as northern prisoners died of starvation and pestilence there day by day, by the thousands, slaves were made to haul the infected corpses away and bury them.

Out of Gettysburg. Because many of the soldiers we’re researching had been in the thick of the fighting at Gettysburg, we’ve delved into that battle, too. Along the way I stumbled on references to a fellow named Dr. Rufus B. Weaver. He was a youngster living in Gettysburg when the battle happened. Soon after the war Weaver’s father was contracted to exhume the bodies of slain South Carolina soldiers for reburial in the South.  When his father died suddenly, Weaver took on the task himself since he knew the location of the mass graves.  By then he was a young medical professor in Philadelphia, but he managed to juggle the tasks — and in the end identified and repatriated the remains of over three thousand individual soldiers!  That’s not all. Later in his career, Dr. Weaver gained renown  as the first person to completely dissect and expose a human “cerebrospinal” nervous system. The good person who donated her body to science to allow the dissection was one Harriet Cole — a black scrubwoman who had cleaned Dr. Weaver’s lab before dying from  TB in 1888. Harriet’s nervous system went on display at the world’s fair in Chicago in 1893, and still can be seen at the Drexel medical school in Philadelphia. Want a look? Click here.

From Slavery to Waverly. For those of you who live in the Scranton area, there are two notable events to put on your calendars. One is a special performance of Sandra Burgette Miller’s “Tell ‘Em: One Man’s Struggle from Slavery to Waverly, Pa.,”  on Feb. 8 and 9, 7:30 p.m., at the Scranton Cultural Center, 420 N. Washington Ave. Miller describes the show as a “performance poem” about her great-great-grandfather, Thomas Burgette, who fled north on the Underground Railroad and began a new life in Waverly.  Tickets are available through Ticketmaster.  Also, the Black Scranton Project, a new archival and activist undertaking, is showcasing the city’s African American heritage with a Black History Month exhibit at the Marketplace at Steamtown, 300 Lackawanna Ave. Glynis M. Johns, the project’s founder, aims to “give recognition and reinstate two centuries of discounted contributions put forth by black residents” of the region.  Information is at blackscranton.com. I plan to attend both shows. Hope to see you there.

Book Talks. Two events are coming up for me in the next month. First is an author panel on Jan. 30, at 7:30 p.m., at Congregation Beth Am Israel, 1301 Hagys Ford Rd., Penn Valley, Pa. Then I’ll be presenting to the large Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table, on Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m.,  at the Radisson Hotel, 2400 Old Lincoln Highway, Trevose, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Lynched — in Pennsylvania. The other day I went to nearby Haverford College to check out a temporary exhibit titled “The Legacy of Lynching: Confronting Racial Terror in America.” It was created by the Equal Justice Initiative, whose new center in Montgomery, Ala., memorializes the 4,000-plus black people killed by vigilante lynchings in the U.S. The exhibit includes a video map of these horrors, shown in red, state by state.  The old Confederacy appears as a huge crimson spatter on the map, but there are some red spots in the North and West as well. Even Pennsylvania has two. One spot is in Chester County and one in Monroe, not far from the locale of my Underground Railroad history book, Embattled Freedom. The Chester lynching occurred in 1911. A black steelworker accused of a shooting was rounded up by a white mob there and burned alive before a crowd of 3,000, including women and children. The Monroe killing occurred in 1894 in the lovely Poconos. An African American foreman for the Wilkes-Barre and Eastern Railroad was accused of fatally shooting a white merchant and robbing his family. A mob of 500 shouting “Lynch the n–!” stormed the lockup and got their hands on the suspect. He was taken to a tree and hanged — the preferred method in most racist lynchings.  Many thanks to the EJI for bringing these outrages to modern awareness and tying them to other current issues. I’ll never forget the exhibit’s video account of a California woman who returns to the old family home in Louisiana to look into her great-granddaddy’s lynching a century ago. She keeps her composure until she and her kin walk to the spot. She looks up at the tree and cries like a baby.   “The Legacy of Lynching” closes this Sunday, Dec. 16, at Haverford’s Whitehead Campus Center.

On the Map. You might want to know about a worthy new effort called the Pennsylvania African American Documentation Project. It was covered this week by reporter Kristin Graham, a former colleague of mine at The Philadelphia Inquirer. The project, she writes, is developing a digital database of every black cemetery in the state, “from single plots to the resting places of hundreds, with GPS coordinates, tax parcel numbers, and photos.”  I’ve reached out to the project leader, Shippensburg University historian Steven Burg, to be sure he knows about the graves of the thirteen black soldiers I profile in Embattled Freedom. Seven of them are among the fugitive slaves who lie buried in an integrated cemetery in Waverly, Pa., It’s also good to know that the Waverly Community House is asking the National Park Service to be listed as a site on its Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, based on Waverly’s “Destination Freedom” educational map. I was pleased to write a letter of support to the application and proud to be part of the effort.

Book News. It was my honor to speak in the past month to Civil War Round Table groups in Philadelphia and Woodbridge, N.J. The Philadelphia chapter is based at the Union League and meets in the club’s august Lincoln Memorial Room — where my podium was placed right in front of a towering statue of the Great Emancipator himself. Next up is a talk to another large chapter, the Delaware Valley Civil War Round Table. It’s scheduled for Feb. 19, 7:30 p.m., at the Radisson in Trevose, Pa.

 

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Sowing “Seeds of Discord.” It was July 1865, three short months after the surrender of the racist Confederacy, but white racists in the North were hardly in rhetorical retreat. Instead, they found a new target. Their bitter anti-abolitionism was replaced by rants against the emerging prospect of black voting rights.  The Lackawanna Register, a race-baiting Democratic weekly in Scranton, made its opposition loud and clear that July 27.  It is a plain fact, the Register declared, that the black man is “by the unchangeable antagonism of race, and by his inferiority of intellect, debarred from that full citizenship which would give him a share in the government of the country. … Those who are now working so zealously to insult the reason and intelligence of the people by lifting a negro to a level with the white race care as little for the welfare of the Africans as they have in times gone by for peace and amity between North and South.” The black suffrage campaign, it warned, will “sow seeds of discord, from which will spring new disputes and fratricidal conflicts.” What a self-fulfilling prediction. As I write in Embattled Freedom, Jacksonian Democrats had managed to disenfranchise Pennsylvania’s black populace back in 1838. They opposed the 15th Amendment which granted voting rights to black men in 1870. And they would stand by as Reconstruction was undermined in the South, the Klan rose, Black Codes were enacted, and lynchings spread. These “new disputes” were not fratricidal, however. They were one-sided crimes, born of undying white hostility and enabled by  forces North and South.

“Mr. Kilgore’s Funeral.” My latest history project involves helping  to research and write the story of a little-known Civil War army camp that existed a few miles from my home outside Philadelphia in 1864 and 1865.  We’ve been looking into the officers who led the so-called Camp Discharge, and one in particular has caught my fancy. Capt. Damon Y. Kilgore was the assistant quartermaster, a rather colorless supply role. It was the rest of his life that was colorful. Kilgore was quite the nonconformist for his day.  After the war he became a well-known Philadelphia lawyer who petitioned to keep the Bible out of public schools and advocated for women’s rights. His wife was Carrie Kilgore, a suffragist who became the first woman admitted to the bar in Pennsylvania. And Kilgore himself was the first person to be formally cremated in Philadelphia. He was a devotee of Spiritualism, a movement whose adherents including many war widows gathered for seances to communicate with the dead.  Kilgore believed his spirit would live on after death.  His will specified that his remains — or “mortal garment” — be cremated and that his wife and two young daughters not wear black for him. When death came in May 1888, his funeral drew a throng.  The eulogy was given by a Spiritualist medium “who spoke for over an hour with his eyes tightly closed,” according to a reporter for The Philadelphia Times. The mourners proceeded to the newly opened Philadelphia Crematorium in Germantown for the final rites. At the end, family and friends “took their last look at his burning body through a little glass peep-hole in the door and the funeral was over.”  Kilgore believed he would return to “the scenes of his life” after death, and his spirit was said to haunt the crematorium. (Or should I say is said? The crematorium is still in operation in the city’s Chelten Hills Cemetery. Check out this fascinating site for more.)

Book News. Many thanks to the fine folks at Lackawanna State Park and the Wallenpaupack Historical Society for hosting author presentations this past week. My talks in support of Embattled Freedom are winding down, with one scheduled in the next month and two others in future months. The next talk — my 48th for the book — is set for Monday, Dec. 3, at 7 p.m., at the Woodbridge Public Library in Woodbridge, N.J. The sponsoring group is the Robert E. Lee Civil War Round Table.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Clarification. The notice I sent to you the other day misstated the sponsor of the Embattled Freedom talk I’ll be giving on Tuesday, Nov. 13,  at Lackawanna State Park. The sponsor is the park itself. The presentation begins at 7 p.m. in the park’s Environmental Education Center, on Route 407 in lovely North Abington Township, Pa. It’s a free PowerPoint talk, and all are invited.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello again, History Mates old and new. Here are two new items to chew on:

Assassin on the Loose! While browsing through microfilmed newspapers for some Civil War research recently, I stumbled upon an alert to readers headlined “HIGHLY IMPORTANT: Booth, the Assassin, in Pennsylvania.”  The item ran in the Philadelphia Inquirer on April 20, 1865 — six  days after the notorious John Wilkes Booth had killed President Lincoln in Washington. A manhunt was afoot that would actually track Booth’s flight south into Virginia, where he was killed.  But the Inquirer item, datelined April 19 in Reading, Pa., somehow reported that the killer had been spotted “on the passenger train that left here at 6 o’clock for Pottsville. A gentleman noticed him on the train before it reached here, spoke to him and shook hands with him. During their conversation, Booth colored up several times and appeared annoyed and desirous of avoiding observation. The gentleman is positive it is Booth, he having known him for several years. Why did he not give the alarm at once or before the train left here, I do not know, but just as the train left he notified several of the officers of the road. An extra train was immediately sent in pursuit of the train. Telegrams were sent to all points upon the line of the road. The result is unknown as yet.”  The Inquirer stayed with the story — and on April 22 acknowledged that it had been a false alarm. Fake news. “The man who was said to have recognized the individual arrested as Booth denies having any knowledge of him. The individual said to be Booth and arrested at Tamaqua has been discharged from custody.” Nowadays lawsuits would ensue, but the two unnamed gents appear to have just walked away from the mess. Not Booth. He was shot dead in a barn four days later.

And Compared to Today? When I give talks about the abolition and Civil War history in Embattled Freedom, listeners frequently ask me to compare the tensions of that era to today’s polarized politics. I try to go light on the comparisons since I’m there to talk history, but I understand that folks are looking for insights. I got the question again last week. So here’s how I think about it. There is a striking similarity in the weaponizing of the media. Most 19th century newspapers were political house organs that were strident in their rhetoric and trafficked in untruths.  Today we’re fortunate to have mainstream media that tries to report the news in a careful and balanced way, but out on the wings are major and minor media that spin mightily. Many of us turn primarily to those lesser media, and they stoke the kind of resentment that does remind me of Civil War era invective. Another point of similarity is the immigrant-sanctuary city issue of today. The fugitive-slave haven my book chronicles can be seen as a sanctuary city of its day because its black refugees were not citizens and the whites who safeguarded them were defying the law.  We laud Underground Railroad work  today. How different, really, were its refugees from today’s immigrant refugees from violence? Still, on balance, I believe then-and-now comparisons only go so far. We haven’t matched the animosity and violent threats of the 19th century, nor are we fighting over as giant and evil an issue as institutionalized human slavery.  People are polarized and angry today, norms are being eroded,  and fringe actors are feeling emboldened. I feel as irritated about that as anyone else. But I really don’t see us coming to blows as a society.  How about you? Do you agree?

Book news. I’ll be back on the road a few times in the coming months, weather permitting. Yesterday I had the pleasure of speaking at my boyhood church, as reported in this article. On Nov. 13 at 7 p.m.,  the Lackawanna State Park is bringing me in for a talk at the visitor center in North Abington Township, Pa. The next day at 1 p.m. I’ll be addressing the Wallenpaupack Historical Society, at the Environmental Learning Center in Hawley, Pa. Maybe I’ll see you there.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“A Deep and Dark Blot.” During the Civil War, nothing outraged the Northern public more than the maltreatment of Union prisoners in the Confederate hellhole known as Andersonville. As its emaciated prisoners headed back North at the end of the war, scores of them passed through a processing facility outside Philadelphia that I’m currently researching. By 1905, as I’ve learned, more than 400 Pennsylvania vets who survived Andersonville were alive and fit enough to return to the site in southern Georgia for the dedication of a monument to the 1,849 Pennsylvanians who had died in misery there. Reports from 1905 say the hosts turned on the Southern charm, giving the arriving Yankees carriage rides and tours of the cotton warehouses and exchanging niceties. The unpleasant realities of Jim Crow and Southern lynchings (57 that year alone) were no doubt glossed over. The turn of the century was a time of superficial reconcilation, with many whites in the North willing to abide the  South’s mythology that the Confederate cause had been honorable, even inspiring. During the big dedication ceremony, a Southern chaplain set the tone with an opening prayer of thanks “that the animosities of the past have been obliterated, that the blue and the gray now mingle in fraternal sympathy.” A few other speakers gave similarly benign remarks.  But then came Col. James D. Walker of Pittsburgh, a leader of the monument commission, who stripped away the gloss. His message for the audience of 5,000 was, in sum: “That the Confederate authorities were guilty of perpetrating a most iniquitous method of exterminating a mass of helpless and powerless prisoners cannot be gainsaid or successfully controverted, and their action will ever remain a foul, deep and dark blot upon the humanity and civilization of an enlightened government.” Gen. Harry White of Indiana, Pa., who had survived a series of Confederate prisons, kept it up. His speech denounced the new crop of Southern history textbooks that depicted Northerners as aggressors and Southerners as noble victims. Don’t be fooled, he said. The rebel  doctrines of nullification and secession had been unconstitutional and traitorous.  “Let the youth of the land be instructed that while all, North and South, who fought in this war were brave men, there was a difference between the cause for which the men in blue fought and that for which the men in gray fought. One was eternally wrong and the other eternally right.” Their remarks are printed in full in the 1909 book Pennsylvania at Andersonville. They show that, there in the heart of Dixie, manners be damned, some Yankee vets felt dutybound to call out another outrage — this one rhetorical and political — being perpetrated by the South.

“They Tasted Death at Every Breath.” That’s the line that most sticks with me most from the Andersonville poem below. It reinforces a remark that a Gen. E.A. Carmen made at the 1905 ceremony. As he noted, the soldier in battle “faced death upon few occasions, but the battle here [in the prison pen] was constant, a daily and hourly struggle for life.” The poem was penned by John E. Barrett, publisher of the now-defunct newspaper The Scranton Truth. It is enscribed in bronze on the Pennsylvania monument at Andersonville.

Here sleep the loyal and the brave,

   By kindly death from prison freed,

Who gave their precious lives to save,

   The nation in its time of need.

 

This monument cannot disclose,

   Nor can the skill of mortal make,

A record of the countless woes,

   They suffered for their country’s sake.

 

To Him alone who knoweth all,

   Is known the anguish they endured,

Awaiting the last bugle call,

   With breaking hearts, while here immured.

 

Denied a soldier’s splendid death,

   Where glory rolls her martial drum,

They tasted death at every breath,

   And bravely met their martyrdom.

 

Enshrined in Pennsylvania’s heart,

   To flag and freedom ever dear,

Are they who bore the patriot’s part,

   And nobly served their country here.

 

And while the stars their vigil keep,

   Across the silence of the sky,

The nation’s love for those who sleep,

   At Andersonville shall not die.

 

Books News. I’ll be back on the author trail soon, making five appearances in support of Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave in the Wary North. Come if you can, and please spread the word:

  •  Sunday, Oct. 7, 1 p.m., Ryerss Museum,7370 Central Ave., Northeast Philadelphia
  • Wednesday, Oct. 10, 7 p.m., Dennis Forum panelist, Brooks Theater at Keystone College, LaPlume, Pa.
  • Thursday, Oct. 11, 10 a.m., Dennis Symposium, Brooks Theater at Keystone College, LaPlume, Pa.
  • Saturday, Oct. 13, 10 a.m., Living History Festival, Allentown N.J.
  • Sunday, Oct. 14, 3 p.m., Waverly Methodist Church, Waverly, Pa.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“THE BUSH NEGRESS.” On a recent speaking trip to lovely Honesdale, Pa., I stopped at the historical society to browse old newspapers  from Northeastern Pennsylvania. And there in the Pittston Gazette of Oct. 11, 1850, was that bizarre phrase, in all caps. It was the headline on a large display ad that was just as strange. A so-called “Wild Woman of the Woods” had been captured in Sumatra and would be on public display for two days under a pavilion  in Pittston. Admission was 25 cents, children half-price. “This creature is a newly discovered link between Brute and Human species, and it is difficult to determine to which it belongs,” the ad asserted.  “Its gait is erect, having the negro features with protruding mouth, bald head, with hair five inches long on its arms. The specimen grows to the height of five and a half to six feet.” Don’t miss it, the hucksters said, because “there is no humbug about the young lady, she is a genuine specimen of the lowest order of beings, and well worthy of a visit.” Egads, just what had I stumbled upon? Some online research showed that the poor creature had been drawing crowds in New York City and Buffalo, and would go on to  tour Wilkes-Barre, Bloomsburg, Lewistown and Baltimore. I was unable to find any illustrations or independent research, but based on a 1850 Buffalo newspaper account, I suspect the crowds were beholding an orangutan.  This was a time of discovery and scientific pursuit–and of rank racism. Curiosity-seekers were treated to traveling freak shows and “human zoos” that featured the likes of the Siamese Twins and the Hottentot Venus. Enlightenment thinkers were already searching for a “missing link” between anthropoids and humans in what was termed the Great Chain of Being. But to openly claim that the furry specimen resembled a Negress and was “of the lowest order of being” revealed where black people ranked among humans in the white imagination. The touring primate would meet its end that November in chilly Baltimore, the death attributed to tuberculosis. People had been encouraged to stroke the “docile” creature during the tour, and that exposure may have been the fatal touch. I can only hope the curiosity-seekers didn’t also feel emboldened to stroke and poke any black people they encountered afterward, or toss dehumanizing taunts their way. For the tour certainly reinforced views of black inferiority that persist to this day.

“Great Excitement.” Another bizarre aspect of the Bush Negress visit is that it occurred just as Pittston and environs were girding for the effects of the controversial new Fugitive Slave Act of 1850.  The same month as the primate visit, the Gazette  reported on a confrontation in nearby Wilkes-Barre. Someone calling himself “the marshall” had shown up there to arrest some fugitive slaves but was resisted by a group of 100 black people–which would have been the entire black population of the city.  The man began gathering a posse to help him, knowing the law required that citizens assist in apprehending runaways.  Meanwhile,  the alleged fugitives disappeared, no doubt spirited to safety by the other black people. As I write in Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North, black communities across the North organized self-help “vigilance committees”  to resist slave-catchers. The Negress tour must have been just one more indication to local blacks that they were objects of scorn and were best advised to depend on themselves when push came to shove.

Book News. I’m still enjoying summer break. Then come three appearances in October, on the 7th at the Ryerss Museum & Library in Philadelphia, the 13th at a Civil War weekend in Allentown, N.J., and the 14th at Waverly Methodist Church in Waverly, Pa.–my boyhood church. More details next month.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“WHITE HUSBANDS OR NONE.” You can imagine how that capitalized proclamation jumped out at me as I paged recently through copies of the defunct Scranton Republican newspaper archived at the Lackawanna Historical Society. There on page 2 of the Oct. 9, 1856, edition was a sarcastic political item titled simply “Spirited.” That year of 1856 the nation was in the thick of a presidential campaign pitting John Fremont of the new Republican Party against old-line Democrat James Buchanan. The item was scoffing at “the spirit evinced by some ladies who joined in a Buchanan procession in Ohio lately, and who carried a banner containing the motto: ‘WHITE HUSBANDS OR NONE.’ Those ladies must be getting desperate. They have actually nerved themselves up to the point of resolving to die old maids rather than marry negroes! What a bold, lion-hearted class the Buchanan ladies of Ohio must be.”  Mocking Buchanan’s own unmarried status, the item concluded, “Old Buck himself seems to have adopted the motto A WHITE WIFE OR NONE; and has been compelled in consequence to take–none. Let the ladies beware!”

Finding the Lost “Sinks.” Brad Upp is on a mission. For years he’s been digging for artifacts at the site of a Civil War camp near where we live in Lower Merion, outside Philadelphia. Brad is a natural at it, being a Civil War re-enactor and longtime artifact-hunter. His dogged efforts at the site have unearthed scores of bullets, buttons, buckles, coins, clay pipes, even wedding rings. But what he really wants to locate are the big “sinks.” That’s the military term for outhouses (probably a reference to “sinkhole”),  and Brad figures the camp had at least four of them. Basically, they were  trenches 12 feet long and 8-10 feet deep. As the sinks filled up with human waste, Brad tells me, dirt, rubbish and other stray items were layered on in stages. He’s tracking down blueprints that may indicate where the sinks were–and he’s sure they contain a gold mine of artifacts. (The nasty sewage has long since disintegrated, he assures me.) The camp was erected toward the end of the Civil War to process soldiers whose terms of service were ending.  Brad figures about a thousand men were discharged there. It also had a medical wing to handle ill or wounded soldiers, including a number of emaciated prisoners from Confederate POW camps including the infamous Andersonville. The Lower Merion Historical Society has asked me to collaborate with Brad on researching and writing up the story of this temporary camp and the men who passed though. It’s my honor to work with Brad on the project.

Book News.  The Wayne County Historical Society in Honesdale, Pa., is bringing me in next Tuesday, July 17, to give a talk about Embattled Freedom: Chronicle of a Fugitive-Slave Haven in the Wary North. The program is at 2 p.m. in the historic venue known as the Cooperage, 1030 Main St. in Honesdale. I’ll be signing and selling books, too. Come if you can, and please let folks know.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

Hello, history mates old and new. Here are two new nuggets for you:

“Soldier’s Heart.” Today it might be known as PTSD, Post Traumatic Stress Disorder. But doctors in the 19th century classified the anxiety and palpitations that many Civil War veterans suffered as Soldier’s Heart. I just learned the evocative old term in The Won Cause: Black and White Comradeship in the Grand Army of the Republic, a 2011 book by military historian Barbara Gannon.  According to Gannon, more than 34,000 Civil War vets received disability pensions for Soldier’s Heart maladies, with an untold number of others going undiagnosed. Not only soldiers were affected. Gannon profiles a war nurse named Lucy Nichols who developed ongoing “palpitations of heart and fainting spells.”  As Gannon writes, “In all American wars, nurses like Nichols may have suffered from Soldier’s Heart, an accurate description of the mental agony inherent in giving your heart to sick and wounded soldiers.” I was touched by Gannon’s story of a second nurse, Elizabeth Fairfax. She and Lucy Nichols had been slaves in the South and managed to link up with  Northern regiments during the war. Both moved North afterward and joined integrated G.A.R. posts for comradeship. Gannon quotes from a local profile of Elizabeth Fairfax: “When Memorial Day came she always marched beside the boys, trudging along on bare feet, wearing a rusty black dress and an equally decrepit bonnet, her expression of mourning. She carried a bunch of flowers in one hand, and an American flag in the other, and was never an object of derision.–rather [inspired] reverence.”

“Bleak and Embarrassing.” My newly launched research into the history of housing discrimination in my current town of Lower Merion, Pa., is pushing forward. I’ve found that the developer of one nearby subdivision restricted all of his 173 parcels to members of “the Caucasian Race.” This was set out in a deed covenant in 1925, during the rise of the so-called Second Ku Klux Klan. A search for a possible direct link turned up the sorry fact that Lower Merion did have an active Klan membership. And that their incitement led to an ugly case of homicide back then. On the evening of July 3, 1924 — the eve of July 4, mind you — 200 Klansmen rallied on a hill overlooking a black and Italian neighborhood and set a large cross ablaze. According to newspaper accounts, a frightened black lady called the police. Two officers arrived at the hillside, which is on the campus of Haverford College. When they tried to stop two figures in the darkness, gunfire was exchanged and both cops were hit, one of them with a wound that would kill him two months later.  The Klansmen scattered and  no one was apprehended.  The police chief publicly “declared war” on the Klan and issued a shoot-to-kill order. Klansmen soon began talking —  and claimed that as many as 30 Klans members were on the police forces in Lower Merion, Radnor and Haverford!  A final shocker was that the person who confessed to the killing was a local black man. In a 1928 confession, he said he had grabbed his World War I revolver and rushed to the hillside that night to put out the flames as the rally was breaking up. In the darkness, the fellow mistook the police officers for angry Klansmen and exchanged gunshots. He was later convicted of voluntary manslaughter and served a minimum sentence of three years. In 2012, local officials honored the slain officer, Francis X. Roy, with a plaque and remarks that “at a time that was bleak and embarrassing in our history, he went forward and did his job and he paid the ultimate price.”

Book News. One talk is scheduled this summer — on Tuesday, July 17, at 2 p.m., at the Wayne County Historical Society, 810 Main St. in Honesdale, Pa. That will be my 42nd appearance in support of Embattled Freedom. Following the summer slowdown, I’ve got five more talks on the schedule and several others in the works.

Jim Remsen’s History Nuggets

“The White Man’s Interests.” In my author talks I stress that, troubling as it may be to hear, the principle of “the white republic” was central to Pennsylvania’s ruling establishment throughout the 1800s. More evidence of that racist principle emerged to me recently in The Scranton Register, a house organ of the powerful old Jacksonian Democratic party.  In the aftermath of the Civil War, black activists and many white Republicans were arguing that the vote should be extended to black men. In its issue of July 27, 1865, The Register shouted a rebuttal. The American government was “got up by white men, for the benefit of white men,” it declared. The Democratic party “at no time in the history of the country ever considered the darkey, in its appeals for ‘universal suffrage,’ but labored, appealed, and fought solely for the advancement of the white man’s interests in the white man’s government.” Despite “the slander that Democratic opposition to negro suffrage is of recent origin,” The Register noted that Democratic state legislators, governors and judges had actually been holding firm against black rights for decades. (One of the early instances The Register trumpeted, the 1838 repeal of black voting rights in Pennsylvania, is the subject of a chapter in my book Embattled Freedom because that legal case originated in the region I chronicle. It’s tough stuff to read, but true.)

“Contemptuous of Others.” Soon I’ll be launching into my next project: exploring the disturbing history of so-called restrictive covenants (“no blacks, no Jews”) in my current town’s housing stock. To prepare, I just read The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America, by Richard Rothstein. It’s an eminent work — a New York Times Notable Book — and it left me shaken.  As Rothstein writes, “until the last quarter of the twentieth century, racially explicit policies of federal, state, and local governments defined where whites and African Americans should live. Today’s residential segregation in the North, South, Midwest, and West is not the unintended consequence of individual choices and of otherwise well-meaning law or regulation but of unhidden public policy that explicitly segregated every metropolitan area in the United States.”  Inequities in public housing, mortgage guarantees, zoning codes, tax law and more led to profound racial disparities in wealth and opportunity and, Rothstein argues, violated the 14th Amendment’s prohibition on unequal treatment of citizens.  Let me give you another taste: “For the first two-thirds of the twentieth century, America’s national leadership was almost exclusively white, Anglo-Saxon, Protestant, and male, and most were contemptuous of others. … The bigotry of this elite was not based merely on social class but also on race. After all, it was the integration of middle-class, not lower-class, African Americans, that most aroused FHA [Federal Housing Administration] officials. In 1939, the National Association of Real Estate Boards, whose members furnished appraisers to the FHA, prepared a handbook for use in preparing brokers to take exams for licensure by state governments. This handbook warned brokers to be on guard against “a colored man of means who was giving his children a college education and thought they were entitled to live among whites.” If  you want to get a new look at the world around you and how it developed, read The Color of Law.

Book News.  I’ll have four more author talks during the next month. Come by if you can, and spread the word if you will.

  • Wyoming Valley Civil War Round Table. Thursday, May 10, 7 p.m., at the American Legion Building on Rt. 415 in Dallas, Pa.
  • Covenant Presbyterian Church. Thursday, May 17, 6 p.m., at 550 Madison Ave, Scranton.
  • Bradford County Historical Society. Friday, May 18, 6 p.m., at 109 Pine St., Towanda, Pa.
  • G.A.R. Museum and Library. Sunday, June 3, 1:30 p.m., at 4278 Griscom St., Philadelphia.

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