Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

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Resource Round-up: PHMC’s Resources for Studying Pennsylvania’s African American History

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In honor of national African American history month, I thought I would give our readers a glimpse into a few of the resources PHMC has to help study African American historic places in Pennsylvania.

National Register Nominations and HRSFs

There are thousands of records in PA SHPO’s online GIS database, CRGIS, that researchers, historians, and the Average Joe (or Jane) can use to better understand Pennsylvania’s history.

For researching African American history, CRGIS provides links to Historic Resource Survey Forms (HRSFs) and National Register nominations for properties associated with African American history. In addition to including a history and significance of a place, these documents often have bibliographies that can lead readers to other primary and secondary resources.

PA SHPO Director Andrea MacDonald (left) with members from PA Hallowed Grounds (center) and Shippensburg’s Locust Grove Cemetery (right) are happy after the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board voted to send the Locust Grove Cemetery nomination and African American Churches and Cemeteries MPDF to the National Park Service at the February 2020 meeting.

Using the “Ask Regis” function, CRGIS can be searched by property address or historic name or municipality/county. Use the advanced mode to search under “Area of Significance” for “Ethnic Heritage – African American”. You can learn a lot more about savvy CRGIS searching by visiting PHMC’s CRGIS webpage.

Historic Contexts

Recognizing historic African American churches and cemeteries in Pennsylvania got a little bit easier and we couldn’t be happier that it happened during African American History Month.

Last week, the Pennsylvania Historic Preservation Board unanimously voted to forward the “African American Churches and Cemeteries in Pennsylvania, c. 1644-c. 1970 Multiple Property Documentation Form” to the National Park Service for review. NPS’ review and approval is the final step in the process to list properties in the National Register of Historic Places.

Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church and Cemetery in Lancaster City, 2018.

The phrase “Multiple Property Documentation Form” means that a historic context has been created for a particular topic. Historic contexts help assess the significance of a property by determining if a property represents a significant part of history, architecture, archaeology, engineering, or culture of a geographical area.

PA SHPO has many historic contexts about different places, eras, regions, and subjects in Pennsylvania and you can read them all here. The National Park Service also has a number of national contexts.

These contexts are all a good place to start:

If you’d like one of the reports from the above list in the interim, email me at ssplain@pa.gov.

Blog Posts

We try to feature posts about all aspects of Pennsylvania’s historic places and spaces and there are several that include African American history. These posts are informative in and of themselves and may offer leads to other research on the topic. For example, these are just a few:

Lykens, Daupin County was once a stop on the Pennsylvania jazz circuit.

PA Historical Markers

Like National Register nominations and HRSFs, historical markers are a great source of information about a person, place, thing, or subject. 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.

Since August 2019, PHMC has been participating in the #400Years social media campaign. Several markers related to African American history are showcased weekly via PHMC’s social media accounts.

Blue metal sign with yellow writing over yellow background
Pennsylvania’s Slave Trade historical marker.

We invite everyone to explore the nearly 2,500 cast aluminum markers online. The historical marker database is searchable by keyword, county or category.

Community Surveys

In my former, pre-PA SHPO life, I had the honor to serve as the preservation consultant for a large project studying historically African American communities across Pennsylvania.

As part of this 2009-2010 project, I surveyed nine communities of different shapes, sizes and histories and identified buildings and neighborhoods, primarily, and sometimes archaeological sites associated with African American history in those communities. While not exhaustive or comprehensive – I know there is still a lot to learn about these communities – the surveys provide a head start for future researchers.

The survey report and the report for Williamsport can be found on CRGIS. We’re working on getting the reports for the other eight communities on CRGIS. Here is the list:

Pennsylvania’s African American Historic Resources, Survey Report of Findings

  • Coatesville, Chester County
  • Stroudsburg, Monroe County
  • Wilkes-Barre, Luzerne County
  • Williamsport, Lycoming County
  • Mount Union, Huntingdon County
  • Bedford, Bedford County
  • Indiana, Indiana County
  • Meadville, Crawford County
  • Washington, Washington County

PA State Archives Guides

The PA State Archives has a number of great resources, both online and at their Harrisburg building. A search of their online records, Record Groups, and Manuscript Groups can lead researchers to interesting places for information.

To help you navigate the Archives vast holdings for material relating to African American history in Pennsylvania, I’d recommend two resources in particular.

I would highly recommend getting in touch with the PA State Archives to learn more about how they can help with African American history research in Pennsylvania.

PHMC’s Online Museum Collection

The online museum collection is a relatively new addition to the PHMC website and one I am looking forward to exploring in more depth. It is a work in progress and these records represent a small fraction of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC) collection. We are constantly working to expand public access. This site will be updated as we research our objects and improve our records.

Using the simple keyword search, I found a number of items related to African American history in Pennsylvania. Photographs, advertisements, and letters may give researchers studying older and historic places important clues.

Author: Shelby Weaver Splain

Shelby Weaver Splain is the Education and Outreach Coordinator for the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office. Shelby is a native of Bucks County and holds a Masters degree in Historic Preservation Planning from Cornell University and a Bachelor of Arts with Honors in Historic Preservation from Goucher College.

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