Pennsylvania Historic Preservation

Blog of the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office

Studying African American history in Pennsylvania


February is national African American history month.  All over the country, communities are discovering, celebrating, and acknowledging the places that tell the stories of African American history and experience.  This is the perfect time for us to talk about one of our newest initiatives to study African American history in Pennsylvania.

The project…

Last year, the National Park Service (NPS) awarded a $30,000 grant to the PA SHPO to study African American history and historic places in Pennsylvania.  This grant program supports the survey, inventory, and designation of historic properties that are associated with communities currently underrepresented in the National Register of Historic Places and among National Historic Landmarks.

NPS' Underrepresented Communities grant program logo

NPS’ Underrepresented Communities grant program provides money to study historic and archaeological resources that aren’t well represented in the National Register of Historic Places.

Our project is a statewide study of African American history in rural and suburban Pennsylvania related to religious, educational, and benevolent institutions in those African American communities to help identify and nominate properties to the National Register.  This project will emphasize important themes from Pennsylvania’s storied African American past, while attempting to bring a new perspective to the study of African American history as its told through buildings, sites, and communities.

This two-year study will examine churches, schools, cemeteries, fraternal buildings and other institutions important to African American history in Pennsylvania. It includes preparing a historic context for these types of properties, nominating a property to the National Register of Historic Places, and providing education and outreach about African American history in Pennsylvania.

Mt Zion AME Church, Chester County.

Why this project is important…

The story of African Americans in Pennsylvania is both rich and deep, yet there is little information about the built environment that reflects this powerful historical story.  To date, there have been no statewide studies of the built environment related to African American history in Pennsylvania. While sporadic local and regional studies exist, there has been no concerted effort to study and understand this history at the statewide level and share it with Pennsylvania’s broad audiences.

African American resources in Pennsylvania are greatly underrepresented in National Register of Historic Places listings, by state historical markers, and in the Cultural Resources GIS database (CRGIS) of identified historic properties maintained by the PA SHPO. For example:

  • Of the approximately 136,000 historic properties inventoried in CRGIS, only 168 (0.12%) are associated with African American history and more than half of those are located in Pittsburgh and Philadelphia metropolitan areas.
  •  Of the approximately 3,700 National Register listings for the Commonwealth, only 33 (0.9%) are identified for their association of “Ethnic History – African American.”

This project will focus on the rural, small town, and suburban areas of Pennsylvania because:

  • African American history and the associated historic built environment is better represented and preserved in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with little or no recognition elsewhere in Pennsylvania beyond the Underground Railroad
  • The smaller numbers of residents and the limited financial resources of rural and suburban Pennsylvania’s African American communities meant that the cultural resources associated with those communities reflected styles and forms that were often distinct from those found in urban settings with larger concentrations of African American residents.
  • The African American communities in Philadelphia and Pittsburgh have been studied, with some of those studies resulting in historic contexts.

Some background…

In 2008, PHMC’s Bureau for Historic Preservation (now the PA SHPO) and the African American Museum in Philadelphia (AAMP) completed a broad, multi-year project, funded by a Preserve America grant, to document African American history in Pennsylvania and how that history is reflected in the places, buildings, communities, and landscapes across the commonwealth.

PHMC’s 2008 project to study African American history.

Called “Black History in PA: Communities in Common,” this included:

  • a reconnaissance-level survey of nine rural and suburban Pennsylvania communities that identified the patterns and characteristics of historic resources associated with African American history in different areas of Pennsylvania, and
  • a body of research that synthesized the major themes and events in the experiences of African Americans in rural and suburban Pennsylvania between 1644 and 1965.

The survey findings and the extensive research are being used as the foundation for the current project.

What we’re going to do…
When NPS announced that they were offering funding through the Underrepresented Grants program again, we jumped at the chance to continue the work started in 2008.
This project isn’t intended to provide a definitive academic and public history; rather, it is meant to provide a broad framework of the forces and factors that have influenced African American history in Pennsylvania and the surviving built environment that reflects that history.  It will result in a Multiple Property Documentation Form (MPDF), a National Register nomination for the Locust Grove Cemetery, and different education and outreach opportunities.
Slide showing definition of a historic context.

Creating a historic context, or MPDF, is the focus of this grant.

An MPDF, often referred to as a historic context, for institutions is a natural first choice. Historic research and field survey bears out that these institutions played central, unifying roles in African American communities. Churches, in particular, became the institutional heart of African American culture in Pennsylvania and were almost always the locus of the local black community, not only the source of spiritual nourishment but a physical haven, place of community support, and center of resistance. Additionally, a review of our inventory and National Register files shows that churches, cemeteries, and schools are most often the historic resources people wish to nominate to the National Register.
The National Register Nomination
Dr. Steven Burg, Chair of the History and Philosophy Department at Shippensburg University, and his students have been working with the PA SHPO National Register staff to prepare a National Register nomination for the North Queen Street portion of the Locust Grove Cemetery in Shippensburg, Cumberland County.  As early as 1800, a “colored” cemetery has existed at the site, and by 1834, Shippensburg’s first African American church was established there. The cemetery’s significance lies beyond its function as a burial site for USCT troops and Shippensburg’s African Americans. The site evolved to become a cultural center and “heart” of the community as the focus of an annual event each Memorial Day that celebrates African American veterans from every armed conflict.
Our partners in this project…
PA SHPO, a bureau of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), has partnered with Dr. Steven Burg, Chair of the History and Philosophy Department at Shippensburg University in Shippensburg, PA and the non-profit group PA Hallowed Grounds Project to complete this project. PA Hallowed Grounds Project is a volunteer organization dedicated to “preserving and raising awareness of the burial grounds and legacies of U.S. Colored Troops (USCT) and other early Black Pennsylvanians who shaped our history” and to recognize and document the burial sites of PA’s USCT and the cemeteries in which they are located.

PA Hallowed Grounds held their October 2017 annual meeting at Bethel AME Church in Lancaster. Yours truly got to talk about this project.

Their contributions include historic research, the National Register nomination, and assistance with education and outreach programming.  We are currently working to assemble a group of advisors knowledgeable in African American history to assist us with this project.
How people can use this historic context…

The historic context can be used for a variety of purposes.

Primarily it is intended to support the evaluation of properties for National Register eligibility, whether for a nomination or state or federal compliance review.  Not only will it allow for a consistent assessment of historic properties, but it will also be relevant to other activities that seek to identify and celebrate African American history—through social programs, local history events, state historic markers, heritage tourism, and other activities.

The education and outreach component of this project will make this information available to professionals and the public and illustrate how the historic context can be used to recognize historic resources associated with African American history throughout the Commonwealth. We have placed emphasis on awareness and continued communication throughout the life of the project.

Stay tuned to our blog for future updates and information about this project!

Author: Shelby Weaver Splain

Shelby Weaver Splain is the Education and Special Initiatives 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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