Finding What Never Was Lost

This month’s “Off The Shelf” column is written by Bruce D. Bomberger, Archivist & Librarian at the Lebanon County Historical Society (LCHS). Photos are courtesy of the LCHS.

Not long ago, the head of another historical organization within this county contacted me for a referral for a speaker on local African American history. I named the most knowledgeable person whom I knew within the Central Pennsylvania Region. Within a day or two, the person I had recommended also contacted me to ask what resources the historical society had on the subject, specifically for Lebanon County, and I had to say, “not much.” But several efforts and projects since then have revealed both the breadth of African American history in the county’s background and the extent of resources already present within the Society’s walls. Examples are presented here.

The LCHS photograph collection is one resource. We have already shared through cooperation with LebTown news website, a 1913 image of the Lebanon High School football team that shows, at the center, surrounded by his white teammates, the face of David E. Milberrie (1897-1977). The seventh and youngest child of James H. and Margaretta Craig Milberrie, young David was the first African American student to matriculate through the entire Lebanon City School District grade levels and graduate from the high school in 1917. Frustrated, unfortunately, by waiting lists to gain admission to Howard University, he later moved to Virginia. His Lebanon football exploits, however, can still be tracked week by week and year by year in Lebanon newspapers of the 1910s.

Members of the Milberrie family lived on the 1200 block of Lebanon’s Chestnut Street. Local authority on veterans and cemeteries, Kenneth Long, tracked David’s older brother, James Milberrie, Jr., as a Spanish-American War veteran, interred in Mount Lebanon Cemetery.

The efforts of Myra Kitchen and others to seek historical recognition of St. John’s AME Church in Lebanon, and her sharing copies of original church records with us at LCHS, led to our rediscovering a portrait of Rev. Charles J. Morton in our files. Many Lebanonians viewed Rev. Morton as a principal founder of St. John’s and recalled him collecting donations downtown in the pre-WWII era using an inverted, partially-open umbrella.

Contacts that Myra provided for one parishioner, almost 90, and another, nearly 100 years old, enabled me to conduct telephone interviews and record how William M. White had moved his family from New York State to Newmanstown in the 1920s to take a job at Sheridan Iron Furnace. He also preached, and worshipped with his family, at St. John’s. He was comfortably-enough employed to purchase a car to drive to services in Lebanon.

Also documented in St. John’s records of the late 1800s is the role Mary Ann Jones Hicks—an African American owner of a small 12th Street grocery—played in securing land for the church on Walnut Street. Her father Owen Jones was one of the last people to rent the old stone Light property near 12th and Maple Streets as a domicile—one of the last human activities the 1740s-era building witnessed.  “Light’s Fort” was a landmark that sheltered refugees from the French and Indian War and later served the Light family as a distillery.

Owen Jones’ residency in the old limestone Light property is cross-confirmed by 19th-century historian P. C. Croll’s account, also by city directory entries, and, too, by newspaper articles, including a hair-raising tale of Jones breaking a leg in a runaway wagon accident near the Miller organ factory. Jones had served with Company H, 5th Regiment of the Massachusetts Cavalry, Colored, during the Civil War, where he rendered blacksmith services, and was awarded a $12 monthly pension in 1892.

Owen Jones and Mary Ann Jones Hicks were the son and granddaughter of Daniel Jones of Ono (formerly Mount Nebo). Remarkably, a longtime caretaker of the Ono cemetery has reported to LCHS that an 1880s entry in the burial ledger states that Daniel Jones (late 1700s-1880) had once been enslaved by the dissolved estate of Thomas Jefferson. I confirmed with Monticello archives that there once was a “Daniel” named as an enslaved person, probably associated with the president’s Poplar Forest home. While this is no proof, it does suggest a path that future DNA and genealogical researchers might pursue.

In a broader sweep of African American residency in 19th-century Lebanon County, LCHS research volunteer David Bachman took the total tabulations of black Lebanon Countians from the 1860 and 1870 census records and, in each case, found all but one individual among the separate township listings. Revealed from this were black neighborhoods within the city and families in county towns with such details as a Jones teenager (Ono) who worked as a “boatman” for the Union Canal.

In Lebanon sports history, one of the best-known names is Sam Bowie. The opportunity exists here to better document not only Sam’s scholastic and professional careers, but also the life of his family and father, Benjamin P. Bowie, a Bethlehem Steel Corporation employee and United Steelworkers local officer.

Once, the only African American historical figure that came to mind in Lebanon County was “Governor” Dick. He was enslaved by the Grubb family and worked as a collier, charring wood in large volumes to be used in smelting and working iron. It is known that Dick escaped from enslavement in the late 1700s, when he was likely in his 60s. The Grubbs not only paid to advertise for his capture, but also offered a monetary reward.

The necessity of charcoal burning to early iron production and the technical difficulty of constructing, tending, and training others to work charcoal burning pits probably accounts for the great value the Grubbs placed on Dick, even in his senior years—it was his knowledge and his skill they missed when he seized the initiative to own his own labor (and himself).

Underway now, Lebanon Valley College students are examining 1780s Cornwall ledgers at LCHS for further evidence of Dick’s existence and maybe the details that will illuminate the lives of other early African Americans who worked beside him. Here, within the Coleman Family Papers, they have already found entries for “G. Dick” and groups of enslaved people often returning to the company store for new shoes. This was quite possibly the result of stomping the smoldering charcoal pit, a technique to control air pockets in which open flame could ignite and destroy the entire process of controlled burning.

Thus, considerable resources do exist here, in primary form, or accessible over the internet, to research and tell that part of Lebanon County history represented by the African American experience. We invite anyone interested in either investigating this history or in supplying family information or donating African American archival material to come build with us on this knowledge.