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!