It’s been 400 years since the documented arrival of African people in America. In August 1619 the first enslaved Africans were brought to the English colonies at Point Comfort, Virginia. To recognize the contributions and commemorate the resilience of African Americans, the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission (PHMC) will be sharing highlights from the Pennsylvania Historical Markers dedicated to African Americans and the contributions they’ve made to Pennsylvania’s rich and diverse heritage.
PHMC’s Historical Markers Program
PHMC administers the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program to enlighten and inform passersby about various aspects of history that have affected the lives of Pennsylvanians over the centuries. Markers provide a brief snapshot of important histories and are intended to initiate conversations, further exploration and research, and broaden our understanding. Each of these stories make up the fabric of Pennsylvania.
Today’s marker program was established in 1945. Since that time, PHMC has approved and installed more than 200 markers reflecting the significant stories of African Americans in Pennsylvania. The recognizable, blue and gold roadside markers introduce travelers to the people, places, events and innovations of African Americans in 35 of the commonwealth’s counties.
Marking historic places that embody and represent the African American experience in Pennsylvania is intended to be educational. The physical markers provide a critical link to the stories of the people in all our communities.
Highlighting African American History
To commemorate 400 years of African American history, PHMC is highlighting some of the historical contributions made by African Americans through a social media campaign.
Each week between now and February 2020, PHMC will feature selected stories to highlight the multifaceted African American experience across Pennsylvania and will include both well-known and lesser-known people, places and themes. PHMC will share these over all of its social media platforms—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and LinkedIn—and encourage its thousands of followers to share these posts using the hashtag #400yearsPA.
We invite everyone to explore the nearly 2,500 cast aluminum markers online. The historical marker database is searchable by keyword, county or category.
Some African American themes are widely documented through the Pennsylvania Historical Marker Program, including abolitionism and the Underground Railroad, religion, and the civil rights movement.
Abolitionism & the Underground Railroad
Pennsylvania has deep ties to abolitionism and the Underground Railroad. Before the 15th Amendment, the Underground Railroad kept refugees in constant motion throughout northern states and into Canada. Both whites and African Americans played extensive roles in protesting slavery and provided aid to fugitive slaves in Pennsylvania. Numerous organizations and individuals were among the vanguard of the movement. There are more than 50 existing markers representing Pennsylvania’s abolitionist movement and the Underground Railroad, including:
- McAllister’s Mill Underground Railroad Station, Gettysburg, Adams County
- Frederick Douglass, West Chester University Campus, Chester County
- Freedom Road, vicinity of Sandy Lake, Mercer County
- Abolition Hall, Plymouth Meeting, Montgomery County
- William C. Goodridge, York, York County
Places of worship are among the most important historical resources to Pennsylvania’s African American communities. Churches have traditionally played a central, unifying role as the institutional heart of African American culture and are not only the source of spiritual nourishment but a physical haven – a place of community support and center of resistance. Several dozen markers are connected to African American places of worship, including:
- Bethel A.M.E. Church, Carlisle, Cumberland County
- St. James A.M.E. Church, Erie, Erie County
- Harriet A. Baker, Allentown, Lehigh County
- A.M.E. Book Concern, Philadelphia
- St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church, Philadelphia
Civil Rights Movement
The Civil Rights Act was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964; however, there were centuries of division, discrimination and violence leading up to this landmark legislation. The movement evolved from a resistance to slavery to a campaign for independent churches on to a pursuit of education and good jobs. Some of Pennsylvania’s pioneers in the civil rights movement recognized with a historical marker are:
- Robert Lee Vann, Pittsburgh, Allegheny County
- C. DeLores Tucker, Harrisburg, Dauphin County and Philadelphia
- Martin Delany, Chambersburg, Franklin County
- Father Divine, Philadelphia
- Sadie T. M. Alexander, Philadelphia
In addition to the stories represented on historical markers, PHMC is continuously working to document and interpret African American history in collections at the Pennsylvania State Archives and through experiences at The State Museum of Pennsylvania and along the Pennsylvania Trails of History.
A collaboration with the Harrisburg-based PBS and NPR affiliate, WITF, resulted in ExplorePAhistory.com to expand the brief historical marker text into authoritative histories including “Behind the Marker” essays and lesson plans for teachers. The Struggle Against Slavery: The Abolition Movement and Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania continues the stories of more than 30 Pennsylvania Historical Markers, from the first protest against slavery in 1688 and through the efforts of Pennsylvania’s abolitionists who played a key role in the heroic struggle for freedom. African American history is further incorporated into several ExplorePAhistory.com stories and chapters ranging in topics from art and jazz to military and transportation history.
PHMC encourages Pennsylvania Historical Marker nominations of subjects that tell the diverse stories of Pennsylvania’s history. Nominations of markers may be submitted by any individual or organization. The annual deadline for marker nominations is December 1. Criteria for selection include subjects of statewide and/or national significance. You can learn the process of nominating a person, place, event or innovation on the PHMC’s website.
400 Years of African-American History Commission Act
The 400 Years of African-American History Commission Act was signed into law January 8, 2018. The law established a 15-member commission to coordinate the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in the English colonies. The vision of the commission is to ensure that Americans of all ethnicities will be more aware of the immense sacrifices and prodigious contributions made by African Americans to our nation over the course of the last 400 years. http://400yaahc.com/