African-American Women in Berks County’s History

African-American Women in Berks County’s History


Oh, my dark children, may my dreams and my prayers impel you forever up the great stairs – Langston Hughes

February celebrates Black History Month, an opportunity to learn more about the achievements of African Americans. For many years Black history was lost, ignored, or repressed, and it has only been in recent times that an interest in Black accomplishments has surfaced. Let us look at some of these accomplishments from a different viewpoint — through the eyes of African-American women who lived right here in Berks County.

The early African-American community was never very large, and it is almost impossible to know how many Blacks lived here, but slavery did exist in the earliest records. Local industries did not need a large labor force so it was not necessary to trade heavily in human bondage. With the passage of the Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery in 1780, slaveholders were required to register their chattel. By studying the Berks County Record of Slaves, preserved in the local courthouse, historians can locate some of the earliest African-American women in this county.

The new law, passed as a determined effort by the Quakers, did not free slaves born before March 1, 1780; only their children born after that date were eligible for freedom at age 28. These children served as hired help or indentured servants until they reached the proper age. Emancipation could occur earlier if the master agreed, so some slaves were manumitted at age 21. Unfortunately, the law did not prohibit the import or export of slaves from one state to another so young African Americans could be traded or sold into states where the law did not apply.

The first entry in the Record of Slaves is Phyllis, 24 years of age, who belonged to James Biddle, a founder of the Berks County Bar and later President Judge of the Court of Common Pleas of Philadelphia. Elizabeth, 22, property of Collinson Read, lawyer and son of James Read, is the second entry. Both these young women were probably domestics, employed as cooks, laundresses, maids or nursemaids. This was a common role for young African-American women; older, experienced women definitely were cooks or housekeepers. Of the 138 slaves recorded between June 9, 1780 and September 13, 1825, only a small minority were women. As is true of most slaves, there were no surnames recorded, and many were simply listed as female with their ages.

In the Colonial era, more African Americans lived in the rural townships of Berks County than in the City of Reading because of their employment on the iron plantations. The largest slave owners were the ironmasters like Mark Bird, John Lesher, John Patton, George Ege and Christian Lower. Obviously, more male than female slaves were engaged in the arduous tasks of iron making, but women were listed in the records as well as children, which implies some semblance of family life.

Hopewell Furnace (1771-1883), built by Mark Bird, is the best-documented iron plantation in Berks County. Its history contains many references to African Americans, both male and female. These workers were permitted to earn some money for personal use. Women provided food and clothing as well as extra money for the families of the integrated iron community. Single men paid eight cents for a home cooked meal as well as additional money to have their clothes washed and mended. Maids and cooks were also employed in the ironmaster’s mansion. Seasonal jobs like hoeing corn, binding grain and picking apples brought additional funds for women and children.

Financial records from Hopewell Furnace often provide information on women’s work. For example, “Black Dine came on June 22, 1803, and on July 14 went away after collecting her wages as made 3 weeks and 2 days @ 6/ per week.” Another entry in 1809 states, “Black Luce served as a maid for 10 weeks.”
The gradual demise of slavery, the closing of the furnaces and forges, and the rise of the Underground Railroad allowed many more free African Americans to inhabit Reading and the surrounding towns. The census records for the early decades of the nineteenth century support these conclusions. In 1820, there were 347 Blacks (not slaves) in the townships of Berks; in 1830, there were 373; but by 1840, the number had dwindled to 227.

By 1835, at Hopewell there were enough free Blacks to form a community in the valley of the Six Penny Creek close to Joanna Furnace and Birdsboro. The African-American community established its own church, the Mount Frisby African Methodist Episcopal Church, in 1856.

Today, the church has been restored and is the site of the oldest known African-American cemetery in Berks County. One can count on women playing a role in the establishment of the church since religion held a strong place in their hearts. Richard G. Johnson, African-American historian and author, describes the church “as a spiritual center, but also a news center, a haven for runaways, a social center and a place to display one’s finery”—all elements important to women.

The decades of the 1820s and 1830s witnessed the creation of two important churches in Reading by free African Americans. The First African Presbyterian Church began in 1823 in two log cabins located at Washington and Mulberry Streets. The congregation built a new edifice in 1849 and moved to 715 North Tenth Street.

A group of men and women left the Presbyterians and formed the Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church at 119 North Tenth Street in 1834. This church was closely aligned with Richard Allen’s Mother Bethel Church in Philadelphia. Men preached from the pulpits but the ladies were responsible for organizing benevolent societies and mission circles, teaching classes in the large Sunday Schools attached to both congregations, as well as singing in the choir and providing a musical accompaniment for the Sunday services. The history of the Washington Street Presbyterian Church contains anecdotes of Mrs. Tamara Cline. Fondly known as Aunt Tamar, Mrs. Cline dedicated her life to spiritual teaching by kneeling on street corners and praying with wayward boys.

The burning issue of the day was slavery and its abolition or enforcement. Many white churches ignored the problem, but Reading’s free African Americans monitored the situation closely and helped runaways on the Underground Railroad whenever possible. It is possible to view “the pit” in Bethel’s old church where the fugitives rested.

Women pitched in to provide food, medical care and clothing. Ladies were called upon to create disguises for light skinned African Americans, who, dressed in prosperous looking clothing, often “passed” as whites on the railroads. Fugitives who looked respectable found it easier to use forged papers. Small men, attired in women’s clothing, including corsets, fooled the slave catchers and often did not get a second look. Gustavus Nicolls, superintendent of the Philadelphia and Reading Railroad, helped many Blacks northward with free passes on the railroad. Nicolls had married into the Muhlenberg Family which abhorred slavery.

Legislator and historian, Benjamin A. Fryer, described the most famous slavery case to ever take place in Berks County in the pages of the Reading Eagle. It involved the men and women of the Bethel AME Church. Strangers had come to town in February of 1840 looking for runaways, especially those from Maryland where slavery laws still existed. After wandering about town for several days and examining all of the African Americans they could find, the slave catchers grabbed “James Turner” and locked him up as a fugitive. It was the first arrest of this kind in the memory of local residents. “Turner” and his wife were members of the AME Church.

Meeting in the church, the African-American community united its efforts and gathered support for the defendant. In a sensational trial, with witnesses called from as far away as Maryland, Jacob Ross, one of the founders of the AME Church, testified that “ Turner” was really Harry Jones who had lived in Reading for five or six years. Harry and his wife had recently married in the church and were now members of the congregation. Judge Banks, in a lengthy decision, explained that the slavery law of Maryland had not been offered into evidence, and he had no judicial knowledge of such legislation: “Therefore there could be no legal proof that Turner or Jones owed service or labor to Cooley” (his alleged Maryland owner). There was great rejoicing in the African-American churches.

Most of the Black women working in the cities found jobs in service areas: cooks, domestics, washerwomen, nursemaids, nannies and some were even street vendors. Philadelphia possesses a long and interesting tradition of women selling “pepper-pot,” hot corn and other goodies on the street. Reading’s most famous African-American vendor of services was Dinah Clark. An itinerant sawyer, Widow Clark walked the streets with a sawbuck on her shoulders and a saw in hand to cut wood for people. Her customers would bring boards and planks, sometimes fallen tree limbs, out to the curbstone where she would set up shop. On occasion, clients asked her into their yards and gardens to cut down specific trees. At one time Dinah could saw and split two and one-half cords of wood a day for which she was paid a dollar and a half. Cutting wood earned more money than doing laundry.

Dinah’s history is long and colorful. Born to slave parents in 1794, in Bern Township, she was free under the law of 1780. As an indentured servant, Dinah was sold or traded to many masters in her early life, finally earning her freedom at age 21. She never learned to read or write, but through her jaunts around town she gathered a great deal of daily news and was considered well-informed and quite intelligent. After her marriage to William Clark, the couple moved to Reading where eleven children were born to them, seven who died in infancy. Those who survived were Mary Ann, who was blind and remained with Dinah to the end; Hannah, a widow who lived in Philadelphia; John, of Newark. N.J.; and Silas William, address unknown.

William Clark sawed cordwood and carried coal for clients. It was he who taught Dinah how to saw wood. After his early death, she supported herself and children with all kinds of housework as well as the heavy labor of white washing, carrying coal and, of course, cutting wood. This became her favorite job, and as she wandered from the Mansion House on Fifth Street to the homes of her well-known clients where she sawed and split kindling to use for cooking and baking, Dinah became Reading’s best-known African-American woman.
Another African-American woman of note was Jenny Terry who was the matriarch of a large and important family in Reading’s history. Freed by her master, St. Leger Landon Carter of Virginia, Jenny and her nine children came northward with money obtained from his will. They chose to settle in Reading where four of her sons became successful barbers and businessmen. Her daughters were happily married and settled in the community where the whole family worked diligently for the Washington Presbyterian Church. Moses, her oldest son, taught school, conducted on the Underground Railroad and served as Reading’s first African-American postman. He became principal of the Phillippi School, a segregated “colored school” which operated from 1873 to 1876. Two of Jenny’s sons fought in the Civil War. Her grandson and great-grandson held the distinction of being Reading’s first Black policeman and doctor respectively.

Longevity on the part of African-American women contributed to their role as oral historians.

Much of what we know today of slavery, local personalities, folkways and traditions, and changing cultural patterns can be traced to informative interviews conducted by Reading Eagle reporters of the past. Journalists who customarily interviewed centenarians as they approached their birthdays have left behind an interesting source for modern historians. All of the following stories, personalities and quotes appeared originally in the local newspaper and form part of a collection I have gathered over the years, as part of my interest in women’s history.

Dinah Clark, described earlier, commented extensively on her treatment as an indentured servant although she referred to it as slavery. As an illiterate, she would not have understood the law. She grew up with the Gabriel Hiester family and made the following comments on food:

We were fed rye bread as black as a hat,
a few potatoes, and cheese mixed with
water. You didn’t see an ounce of butter
on the table in two years. We drank rye 
coffee without milk.

She then added, “Mr. Hiester was a good natured man when he wasn’t intoxicated, and Mrs. Hiester was a splendid woman. She was very kind to the poor people.”
Dinah also provided medical advice which I am sure would horrify doctors today.

The best cure for scarlet fever is to keep
the children warm and grease them with
bacon. Scarlet fever is not catching–that
is my idea. Mumps and measles are 
easily cured. For the measles use saf-
fron tea, and for the mumps take the
children and rub their throats up against
the pig trough. The doctors don’t 
know much about these diseases, and 
in this respect the old women have the
advantage of them.

Sarah Hardy, another Black centenarian, was interviewed in 1875 at the old almshouse in Cumru Township. She had two husbands and twenty children who were scattered to all parts of the world. She came to Reading to live with her son, Enoch Sanders, who preached at the AME Church. She described herself as a bully at the corn huskings, apple butter stirrings and quilting parties, which formed the bulk of the social engagements of the day. “We didn’t have time to play and kiss as the young folks do now; we had to dance, which was often kept up all night.”

Sarah also had some interesting medical remedies for worried mothers.

My children never had the scarlet fever.
When they got the croup I prepared
onion tea for them—made of onions
and sugar and molasses boiled into a
syrup. For measles I gave them sage
tea and kept them warm, for mumps
I rubbed them with goose grease, for
the itch I boiled poison duck root in
fat and greased the children with that,
and for whooping cough I made tea of
hornets’ nests.

Mrs. Chloe Walker may have been 107 when she was interviewed. For many years her husband, Edward Walker, served as the city’s scavenger and was also a popular carter. Born a slave in Virginia, Chloe and her ten grown children left the state after the Battle of Winchester in September of 1864. They made their way to Chambersburg, then on to Harrisburg and finally to Reading where they settled. Chloe traveled alone and was not joined by her husband until after the Civil War ended. “I was here (in Reading) when President Lincoln was shot.”

Mrs. Walker expressed kind reminiscences of her Presbyterian master in Virginia. “There was no work of any kind on Sunday, excepting that which was necessary in attending to the cattle. All the cooking was done on Saturday for Sunday, excepting the coffee.”

In 1915 the Eagle interviewed “Schutty,” a well-known Reading personality who was celebrating her 100th birthday. Schutty, whose real name was Thursy, lived on Tenth Street next to the “Ark,” the Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, a splinter group of the Bethel AME Church. She spent a great deal of time sitting on her front porch observing the neighborhood and recalling her past. Born in Amity Township, she completed her indenture at age 21 and moved with her first husband to Reading. After giving birth to six children, her husband died and she went to work as a domestic taking care of children and cleaning house.

When I was young, Reading was a very
small place. When I lived at Beidler’s
(Cumru), there were no bridges across
the river, and we had to cross in a large
flat boat. I was in the old Court House
when it stood in the middle of Penn 
Street, and I was also in the old jail on
Callowhill Street.
I was present when Susanna Coxe 
was hung on the hill. I trembled so 
that I nearly fell over.

Schutty’s sister, Precina, married Jacob Ross, one of the founders of the AME Church, and thus religion formed a major part of her life. The “Ark” as a church lasted only a short time and later was used as a school for Reading’s African Americans.

Most of the African Americans lived in the city by 1900, but there were exceptions. Daniel Sewal of Maidencreek, a Civil War veteran, made headlines when he married Martha Thornton of Richmond, Virginia. Sewal not only spoke Pennsylvania Dutch but came from a German Baptist tradition. Returning to his father’s homestead at South Evansville after the war, he eventually purchased the farm, which he ran with the help of his mother and first wife. Upon the death of his first wife, he actively searched for a housekeeper he could marry. Martha, in a sense, became a mail order bride as she journeyed to Berks County to be married by Squire Isaac H. Rahn of West
Leesport. “Martha knew Jefferson Davis well and relates many incidents about his life.”

Another source of helpful information on African-American women is the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum housed in the old Bethel church building on Tenth Street. The congregation moved away to a newer church on Windsor Street in 1974. Frank L. Gilyard Sr. serves as president and curator of the non-profit organization and has put together a fine collection of artifacts, photographs and genealogies. The museum is open on Saturday from 1:00 to 4:00 P.M. and may be visited at other times by making special arrangements.

African-American women continued to support the church, benevolent and civic organizations in the early decades of the twentieth century. One must remember that almost all of these groups were segregated and it would have been difficult for Blacks to join women’s clubs or political organizations. The church provided an opportunity for individuality and service. A wonderful poster hangs today in the entrance to the Central Pennsylvania Museum introducing Mrs. Ida Scott Jones and Mrs. Precilla Miller. Mrs. Jones was a steward in the church, which meant she served on the pastor’s administrative cabinet and gave advice to the preacher. Mrs. Miller was superintendent of the Sunday School for 45 years.
Another 20th century woman of note at the Bethel AME Church was Mrs. Pearl Jones, a piano teacher by occupation, but a well-known organizer of musical and drama groups throughout the city. Her Community Choir of Reading presented a yearly recital at Southwest Junior High, which helped to unite the Black community. Many of her theatrical groups participated in competitions throughout the county and state. An interesting photographic display of these various groups is on exhibit at the museum.

The genealogy of the Templeton Family, long-active in the African-American community and the work of the Washington Presbyterian Church, includes some very interesting women. Mildred Templeton, daughter of the pastor, played the organ at the church for 57 years. Women descendants are working on the history of this family which is on file at the museum.
One cannot visit the Central Pennsylvania Museum without being impressed with the two powerfully carved and painted, mercantile figures on display, a man and woman. The description “mercantile” places them in the same category as a cigar store Indian or figure. They were placed outside to tell a story, provide information or to identify a special site. The woman–strong, robust, resolute–originally held a rolling pin in her hand, yet displays her feminine nature by wearing a quirky, little stocking cap with two points. She is the perfect image of the African-American woman who has played many roles in her history but none more important than being a mother to her race.
The talented African-American poet, Langston Hughes, wrote:

Oh, my dark children, 
May my dreams and my prayers
Impel you forever up the great stairs–
For I will be with you till no white brother
Dares keep down the children of the Negro mother.

Author’s Note: It is my understanding that the term “African American” is hyphenated only when used as an adjective and not as a noun.

Side bar:
Reading’s first public school was opened in 1838, but it was not until 1854 that the Black population of the city received an equal education opportunity. The first public “Colored school” was opened that year, allegedly in the basement of the Washington Street Presbyterian Church. From about 1857 to 1873, the one-teacher operation continued in “The Ark,” a brick edifice 19 by 50 feet, built in 1849 as the “Methodist Episcopal Zion Church, formed by a splinter group of the Bethel AME Church. The congregation that worshipped there, never strong numerically, disbanded after a few years and the facility was converted to school use.

Moses Terry, the son of Jenny Terry – a former slave and the matriarch of a large and important Reading family, was appointed teacher of the school in 1860, at a salary of $200.00 a year. Samuel G. Hubert assumed responsibility of the class soon afterward and served until 1876.

From all indications, “The Ark,” which was razed in August of 1885, stood at about 224 North Tenth Street. It is thought that George Anderson, Charles Carter, and Carter’s mother built the place.

Where Genesius Theatre now stands, near the southeast corner of Tenth and Walnut Street, the A.H. Phillippi School was erected in 1873 as a “more suitable accommodation for the Colored class.” Moses Terry was appointed principal. Three years later, on December 22, 1876, the Reading schools were integrated.

The school district continued to use the Phillippi building as a school. Paradoxically, after integration, not one of the 41 Black students who formerly attended the Phillippi School attended it thereafter. They were, instead, assigned to nine different buildings. From the Passing Scene Volume 1, by George M. Meiser, IX and Gloria Jean Meiser.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2004 – 2005 issue of The Historical Review of Berks County