Bellefonte Borough and Pittsburgh Region Green Cities would like to invite you to a Drive Electric PA Initiative Ride/Drive and Workshop on August 9 and 10, 2019 from 9:30 am to 1:00 pm each day.

This event will be held at the Temple Court Building, 3rd floor meeting room and in our parking lot behind the YMCA here in Bellefonte.

The first two hours of the workshop will provide you with information regarding electric vehicles and the benefits of using them. The last hour will be used to see, ride, and drive in the various electric vehicles that will be in the parking lot.

Attendees are encouraged to register; however, there is no registration fee. Attached is the flyer for this event with a linkage to the registration page.

https://m.facebook.com/story.php?story_fbid=342897593283626&id=202768463963207&sfnsn=mo

The program on Friday, August 9, 2019 is designed for municipalities, authorities, fleet managers, school districts and any others associated with community governance and services. The program on Saturday, August 10, 2019 is designed for businesses, developers, and the general public. You may however attend whichever event you prefer.

Three Mass Shootings and Two Vigils with One Hitting Close to Home

There have been three mass shootings across the country in the last week.

On January 23, 2019, a 21-year old man entered a Suntrust Bank in Sebring, Florida and killed all five people present, none of whom he knew according to news reports. His victims were all women: Cynthia Watson, Marisol Lopez, Debra Cook, Ana Pinon-Williams, and Jessica Montague. The alleged shooter is Zephen Xaver, who is currently under arrest for five counts of premeditated murder.  A vigil in honor of these victims was held on January 27, 2019.

On January 26, 2019, a 21-year old man from Livingston Parish, Louisiana killed his girlfriend, her father, and her brother at their home then drove to his parents’ house and killed them. His victims were: Summer Ernest; her father, Billy Ernest; and her younger brother, Tanner Ernest, 17 as well as his parents Elizabeth and Keith Theriot. His name is Dakota Theriot. He was arrested at his grandparents’ home near Richmond, VA and now faces five counts of murder. According to a comment I received (see comments below) the community did not hold a vigil in honor of these mass shooting victims. The first funeral was held on Saturday,  February 9, 2019, two weeks after the shooting occurred.

And on January 24, 2019, the third mass shooting occurred in my community.  In this case, a 21-year old man from Bellefonte, PA who graduated high school with my son shot and killed four people in State College, PA. The victims included himself, two men visiting State College from Ohio, and an 83-year old man who was killed on his 60th wedding anniversary. He also critically wounded a fifth person.

The shooter was Jordan Witmer, a 2015 graduate of Bellefonte Area High School who had just finished a 3-4 year stint with the US Army. The critically-wounded woman is Nicole Abrino, who was or may have been his girlfriend at the time of the shooting. The father and son were Dean Beachy (age 62) and Steven Beachy (age 19) from Ohio; they had attempted to intervene in the argument between Witmer before the shooting occurred.  George McCormick was murdered in his home after Witmer fled the scene at P.J. Harrigan’s Bar and Grille. After crashing his car, Witmer broke into the McCormick home in Ferguson Township and then shot and killed Mr. McCormick. Witmer then died by suicide.  George’s wife, Joann Shaw McCormick was unharmed; she had locked herself in their bathroom and called 911.

Abrino (age 21) of State College was shot in the chest and is currently in stable condition at UPMC in Pittsburgh. She has had two surgeries so far to deal with her injuries, and a GoFundMe campaign has been set up to help her family pay for her medical expenses.

After the shooting, McCormick’s family reached out to the other victims with a message of condolence. Kristine McCormick Vahey, younger sister of George McCormick, offered her condolences to the other victims of this mass shooting, which was published in StateCollege.com:

“The family of George McCormick would like to offer our condolences to the Beachy family on the loss of their loved ones and prayers for Nicole Abrino and her family. We would also like to offer our condolences to the family of Jordan Witmer. While we don’t understand and may never understand why this happened, we know that the Witmer family is also grieving a loss.”

And, just like in Florida, our community held a vigil to honor these mass shooting victims.  I attended this vigil.  We came together to honor the first responders, the victims (including Jordan Witmer) and the families of this shooting and called for some actions to end this type of violence.

Picture of several of the vigil attendees at the Allen Street Gates holding candles at the vigil for the victims of the mass shooting in State College. In the background is a Penn State Police officer, the Engineering building, and the main gates to Penn State University.

The State College and Bellefonte, PA communities come out to honor the victims and first responders of the mass shooting in State College. Vigil hosted by Standing at the Gates for Justice, Third Way Collective and Ni-Ta-Nee NOW.

Due to the solemnity of the event, I did not create a video.  So that you get to an idea of what was said, I have culled several news reports of the vigil to obtain quotes from the speakers and some of the people who came to the vigil.  Here are these comments:

“In the wake of the violence that has taken four lives and left one hospitalized, we thought it was fitting to have it this week, honor those victims and remember their lives.” (quote from WJAC-TV)

”We enter into silence today, remembering the employees of P.J. Harrigan’s and the Ramada Inn and Conference Center. First responders, law enforcement and medical professionals. Nicole Abrino, the single gunshot survivor, and her family as they mourn and heal. Those whose lives have been taken forever: 19-year-old Steven Beachy, his father, Dean Beachy, and 83-year-old George McCormick, a longtime State College and Penn State community member. And Jordan Witmer, the Bellefonte grad who perpetuated the crimes, and his family as they make sense of what happened.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

  • Ben Wideman, campus pastor for 3rd Way Collective at Penn State and chief organizer of this vigil

“The violent loss of our friends and neighbors is all but unbearable. And so, God, we come today asking you to help us fathom that which is unfathomable.” (quote from WPSU Radio)

—Carol Thomas Cissel, minister of the Unitarian Universalist Fellowship in State College

“I just feel a little lost, actually, because I don’t totally know what the solution is. We need a different way of expressing or dealing with issues, more sensible gun regulation but also mental health, but I don’t know totally what the answer is or what formula it should be.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

Michele Hamilton, President of Ni-Ta-Nee NOW, one of the co-hosts for this vigil

“I think certainly something like what happened this evening, to draw people together and say, ‘this didn’t just affect those families that were involved, but it affected all of us.’ This to me is actually the beginning of healing — allowing people to connect to each other and finding resources, whether it’s faith, communities, Tides or just one another, to band together and say ‘let’s support each other.’ The very first thing is to know you’re not alone.” (quote from The Centre Daily Times)

  Tides Program Director Evelyn Wald (Tides is a local non-profit organization offering no-cost support to families coping with the death of their loved ones)

Yes, we all need to heal.  Here in Bellefonte, many people knew Mr. Witmer. My son didn’t know him personally but said he recalls that Witmer was well liked. At one time, Witmer lived about two blocks away from us. The community, his former neighbors and family state that they had no idea of any violent tendencies. All are hurting.  We can’t condone what any of these shooters did.  But we can mourn.

I agree.  We should never have to deal with any form of violence against others. Mass shootings or otherwise.  But we can come together to mourn and then work to reduce these kinds of incidents in the future.

Meanwhile, I think Patty Kleban sums up the thoughts of those of us who attended the vigils both here in Pennsylvania and Florida. She wrote the article titled, “In the Face of Tragedy, a Victim’s Family Responds with Grace”  After quoting Kristine McCormick Vahey, she eloquently ends her article:

Life is short, and we never know what we have beyond right now. Hug those close to you. Forgive your enemies. Show others grace and compassion. Perhaps by sharing our love, we may give others — and ourselves — hope.

Bellefonte’s Civil Rights Legacy

My town. Bellefonte. I’m proud of its legacy on civil rights. We were a significant part of the Underground Railroad in the 19th Century.

Serge Bielanko posted an article about Martin Luther King and Bellefonte’s history associated with civil rights on our local website.  There are a couple of paragraphs from this article that I’d like to share:

In the early 19th Century, Bellefonte rose up from nothing on the hardworking backs of the iron workers who sweated away in the forges that dotted the landscape. Many of those workers were African-American. And later, before the Civil War- when slavery was becoming a hotly contested issue- Bellefonte was a vital stop along the infamous Underground Railroad. The name Bellefonte was whispered in hushed tones among men, women, and children who were fleeing a life of servitude in search of true freedom.

Think about that for a moment.

Bellefonte once literally meant ‘one step closer to freedom’ to human beings in a way that none of us will ever truly understand or fathom. That’s something for each and every one of us to be proud of in this town. I’m not blowing smoke. It’s a heavy notion, but one which I suspect Dr. King would have tipped his own cap to if given half a chance.

Around the time Civil War broke out, Bellefonte’s very own, Andrew Curtin, became Governor of Pennsylvania. This native son was a fierce champion for equality and a close confidant of President Abraham Lincoln’s throughout the war. Governor Curtin was in staunch opposition to slavery and fought fiercely to wipe it off of the American map. He was an important man in United States history, and one that represented a side of Bellefonte that so many current residents still stand strong for.

Among the several stops on the Railroad were the Saint Paul AME Church, the Linn House (which now houses the Bellefonte Art Museum), the Samuel Harris House (home to Candace and Bob Dannaker; she’s a former mayor of Bellefonte), and the William Harris House (aka, “The Wren’s Nest,” home to Ted and Carla Conklin ). Here are some pictures of these stops on the Underground Railroad.

IMG_9809 St. Paul AME Church-001

St. Paul AME Church

IMG_9812 Wren's Nest-001

William Harris House: aka The Wren’s Nest

IMG_9815 Samuel Harris House

Samuel Harris House

IMG_9813 Linn House-001

Linn House

Standing up for equality on Martin Luther King Day and every day, as was done here in the 1800’s, is the legacy we need to perpetuate here and across the country.

I’ll do my part. Will you?

 

picture of Courtney Dickman

New Bellefonte Council Member and New President ProTempore

Just a quick announcement.  Two weeks ago, Paul DeCusati resigned from Bellefonte Borough Council due to time constraints with his work.  As a result, council needed to make two administrative decisions at our meeting on Monday, January 17.

picture of Courtney Dickman

Courtney Dickman

The first administrative item was to appoint a new member of council to replace Paul.  There were four people interested in the position.  After interviewing them and hearing from the public, Courtney Dickman was selected by a 4-3 vote as the third and newest representative of the third ward.  When she is sworn in on February 7, there will be 5 women (3 Democrats and 2 Republicans) serving on a 9-member council. And for the third ward, 100% of the representatives are women. Which, FYI, is where I was elected in 2015. Congratulations Courtney.

picture of Joanne Tosti-Vasey

Joanne Tosti-Vasey

The second administrative item was to elect a new President ProTempore of the council to replace Paul. I was elected unanimously.  That means that in the rare instances when both the President (Gay Dunne) and Vice-President (Randy Brachbill) are absent, I will be leading the meeting.

 

picture of Stained glass windows on north side of Saint Paul's AME Church in Bellefonte, PA

The Underground Railroad, the Mills Brothers, and an AME Church in Crisis

picture of Stained glass windows on north side of Saint Paul's AME Church in Bellefonte, PA

Stained glass windows on north side of Saint Paul’s AME Church in Bellefonte, PA

I live in a town in central Pennsylvania with a history of abolitionism and civil rights for people of color and for women. This history goes back to the early 1800’s when the Quakers first settled in what had just become known as Lamb’s Crossing and eventually Bellefonte, Pennsylvania. According to Bellefonte Secrets,

Bellefonte Pennsylvania was the first town in America where human slavery was forbidden. Even though the law of our land was still that people who were slaves, and were identified as such, were to be returned to their owners. This town did not break any laws even though the slaves, or former slaves, in Bellefonte had no fear of being sent back.

As a result of this early anti-slavery movement in Centre County, Bellefonte became a home for former slaves and freemen. And a community grew up and around a Black church community that became known as the Saint Paul AME (African Methodist Episcopal) Church. It is a church associated with the Underground Railroad during the Civil War and with the Mills Brothers and their family during the early part of the 20th Century.

According to RootsWeb, Saint Paul’s AME Church was established in 1859 through the merger of two other religious houses. The first house was originally founded in 1836 by Samuel Johnson of Chambersburg, Pa. It was known as Zion’s Wesleyan A.M.E. church. The second one was created in 1844 by the Rev. Willis Nazery and was known as the A.M.E. congregation. In 1859 these two merged; they built a church on land donated by a Quaker named William Thomas.

This church has had several leaders, including William Hutchison Mills, the grandfather of the Mills’ Brothers Barbershop Quartet, the folk, jazz, and gospel singing group famous throughout the mid- and late 20th Century. Here’s a bit of history about the anti-slavery movements, Bellefonte, and the Mills Brothers…

With its Quaker roots, Bellefonte has long been a place where people of different races and backgrounds could live and work side by side.  From about 1818 until the Civil War, Bellefonte was a stop on the Underground Railroad and several homes [as well as St. Paul’s AME Church] in the town have now been identified as being former safe houses for runaway slaves.  In the late 1820’s, the ancestors of the Mills family escaped slavery in the South on the Underground Railroad.  Upon arriving in Bellefonte, they decided to stay rather than continue on to Canada.  Of their four sons, Lewis and Edward Mills, joined the Union Army’s Colored Troops and fought in the Civil War.  Lewis’ son, William Hutchinson Mills (b. 1847, d. 1931) was to become the singing Mills Brothers’ grandfather.

William Hutchinson Mills became a barber in Bellefonte in 1871.  In 19th Century northern cities, the barber trade was historically delegated to African-Americans.  In fact, we’ve read that Bellefonte did not have a white barber until sometime after 1880.  Thus William H. Mills began a barbershop at 215 W. High Street in downtown Bellefonte that continuously did business until 1931.  Due to the location of his barbershop, we can assume that William H. Mills had both white and black customers.  An April 19, 1874 reference in the Centre Democrat newspaper states, “Mr. William Mills, one of Bellefonte’s best barbers, is refitting his shop in the most tasteful manner.”

….In 1872, the great black abolitionist and orator, Frederick Douglass, visited Bellefonte to speak at a fundraiser.  While there, he had his hair cut by Williams H. Mills.  Douglass was, perhaps, the inspiration for William H. Mills and the other officers of St. Paul’s AME Church to persuade the Bellefonte school board to integrate their schools, in 1885. 

This history of concern for civil rights and music continues to the present. The current pastor of Saint Paul’s is Dr. Donna King; she is an Instructor in Black History and Women’s Studies at Penn State University and is a visiting researcher at the Dickinson School of Law who describes herself as an activist.

Saint Paul’s church is now, however, in serious disrepair and needs some help and tender-loving care. Our community – both members of the church and community members at large – are now pulling together to save both the congregation and this historic building. The heating system needs to be replaced. Oil needs to be purchased for the winter. Leaks in the roofing need to be repaired. The stained glass has some broken spots that need to be fixed. And that’s what I could either see or heard about; I assume there is much more.

Interior South Side of St Paul AME 20150919_165530

Band Burrage holds a benefit concert that includes music by the Blues Brothers at Saint Paul’s AME Church in Bellefonte, PA. This shows the south side of the church’s interior.

Interior East Side of St Paul AME 20150919_165546

Members of the Bellefonte, PA community gathering inside Saint Paul’s AME Church for a benefit concert to help restore the church. This shows the east side of the church.

Showing financial community support will help obtain necessary historic grant funding to fully restore this historic gem. So on Saturday, September 26, a fundraising afternoon was held. A silent auction was held along with the serving of a soul-food luncheon. But the big event was a free concert by Band Burrage paying tribute to The Mills Brothers; his group was joined by a gospel group from Penn State University. This concert helped bring in many community members to see the church to see and hear about its history associated with the Civil War civil rights and equality.

I attended the concert and taped it so that you could get both a feel for the church interior as well as the music in our community.

Here are the three videos that I made.  If you are so inclined, please help our community save this historic civil rights and musical heritage landmark. Donations can be made at gofundme.com/stpaulbellefonte.

Band Burrage: Part 1

Band Burrage: Part 2

Help Preserve This Historic Church

Once again, donations to help preserve this piece of history can be made at gofundme.com/stpaulbellefonte. Thank you!