I probably chose today’s woman for two personal reasons. The first is that I spent 35 years teaching elementary students, just like she did. The second is because of my love of basketball, which she also had. I remember Grace AsBerry Jones. When I was playing basketball at Wilson, she occasionally refereed our games. She was one of those referees that you didn’t even raise an eyebrow to, let alone your voice! She was tough, but fair. It wasn’t until much later that I learned of her struggles to overcome racial discrimination and her outstanding commitment to the education of children.
Grace was born in West Reading. She was one of seven children and attended Tyson Shoener Elementary School, Southwest Junior High School and Reading High School, graduating with Merit in 1954. She was accepted and planned on attending one of the State Teachers’ Colleges for Health and Physical Education, but because she was an African American, she was not permitted to live in its dormitories. During this era, college students majoring in education were required to pass swimming tests. At her first choice of schools, Grace would not have been allowed to swim in the college’s pool facilities, but would have had to swim at the YMCA for African Americans. She decided to matriculate at East Stroudsburg, where racial discrimination was not such a problem.
Grace played field hockey and basketball while at East Stroudsburg where she was captain and leading scorer of her field hockey team as a senior. Grace was named to the All Collegiate field hockey team three of the four years she played. She started at guard on the basketball team where her nickname was “the Rock of Gibraltar” for her defensive prowess. She became the first African American to be inducted into the Athletic Hall of Fame at East Stroudsburg.
When Grace graduated, she applied to and became the first African American teacher under contract in the Reading School District. After earning her Master’s Degree from Temple University in Guidance, Grace also became the first African American guidance counselor in the Reading School District. In approximately 1968, she became principal at the Lauer’s Park Elementary School, marking the first time in ninety years that the Reading School District hired an African American to this position. She also served as Principal at Amanda Stoudt Elementary and 13th and Union Elementary. While at Amanda Stoudt, her work in early childhood education was rewarded by several grants being awarded to the Reading District. Her efforts brought national recognition to the Reading Schools in 1993. That year she received the Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Image Award and the Bethel A.M.E. Service to Mankind Award. It must have been quite a thrill for her to receive the Key to the City of Reading and to have February 20th of 1993 named as Grace AsBerry Jones Day!
Even after her retirement from teaching she remained active especially in her interest in children and education. She was an assistant Sunday School teacher at Zion Baptist Church, she was an adjunct professor at Albright where she supervised student teachers in elementary education, and she was a guest lecturer at Kutztown and Temple Universities. Grace was involved in the Reading Senior High School Alumni Association and started a chapter of the East Stroudsburg University’s Alumni Association in Berks County. She gave the winter commencement address at ESU in 2003, about a year before her death in 2004. How lucky are the hundreds of Reading children who were influenced by her teaching, counseling and leadership as school principal! Grace must have endured great scrutiny throughout her teaching career, with being the first person to overcome racial barriers in the Reading School District. We educators should be very proud of the exemplary life of service that she lived.
Hallie Vaughan is a Women’s History enthusiast, instructor and reinactor and longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center. As a guest blogger Hallie will focus on Women’s History in Berks County.
Mystery Woman of the Week #5
I painted persimmon colored poppies, calla lilies and cow skulls. Even with failing eyesight I waited and sculpted until my death at age 98. Who am I?
When war erupted in Europe in 1914, the United States was a nation steeped in racial divides. Discrimination was evident everywhere in the country and, in the south, ‘Jim Crow’ laws forced people of color to use separate and usually inferior facilities, denied them equal protection under the law, and condoned vigilante mob violence. Starting in 1915, a devastating boll weevil infestation ravaged the south, destroying cotton crops and putting thousands of African Americans out of work. It was during this time that African Americans began to flee from the south in search of safety, social equality and economic opportunity. Known as the Great Migration, close to 500,000 African Americans moved to northern cities in the largest relocation event America had ever seen.
While many historical accounts cite economic opportunity as the driving force behind the Great Migration, first hand accounts reveal that African Americans relocated primarily in an effort to escape increased oppression from black codes, including ‘Jim Crow’ laws in the southern states. In addition, the industrial economy was growing in the north and a freeze on European immigration made an abundance of low wage jobs available. Despite increased opportunities, racial unrest prevailed during the Great Migration and many African Americans experienced resistance and violence from white citizens as they settled in northern states. One notably violent event occurred in East St. Louis, Missouri on July 2, 1917, when a four day riot between white and black workers left 125 black residents dead.
Violence also erupted at Camp Logan in Houston, Texas when black soldiers of the 3rd Battalion of the 24th Infantry grew tired of racial discrimination by white citizens and police personnel. The soldiers marched to assert their rights and a riot ensued. 4 soldiers and 16 civilians and law enforcement personnel were killed in the conflict. The army court-martialed 110 soldiers. 63 were given life sentences and 13 were hung without due process.
Despite the violence, black press and civil organizations insisted that African Americans be given the opportunity to serve their country in the army. When the United States entered the Great War in 1917, Woodrow Wilson stood before Congress and stated “the world must be made safe for democracy.” These words resonated deeply in the African American community as they had yet to experience true democracy here in America. How could Wilson’s words be sincere if America set out to fight for democracy in Europe while people of color were treated like second class citizens at home? Viewing the conflict as an opportunity to prove their equality as citizens, African Americans were eager to join the fight overseas.
African American draftees were assigned to the 92nd & 93rd Combat Divisions. The army assigned most African American soldiers to service units since many army officials believed that black soldiers were more suited to manual labor than combat duty. However, there were instances where African American soldiers did see combat; most notable was the 93rd Division 369th Infantry Regiment, known as the Harlem Hellfighters. The Hellfighters served in combat on the frontline for 191 days, ceded no ground to the Germans, and were the first regiment to reach the Rhine River after the Armistice. With the longest consecutive duration of service in combat in WWI, the Harlem Hellfighters received a regimental Croix-De-Guerre, one of France’s highest honors. They returned to the United States national heroes.
Unlike the 93rd Division, the 92nd Division did not enjoy the same recognition for their accomplishments and were treated inhumanely even as they served their country. Depite being segregated during their training in the U.S., which impeded the unit’s cohesion and pride, the 92nd Division served on the front lines with valor. However, the division faced significant challenges due to racist attitudes, particularly from commanding officers Lieutenant Brigadier General Bullard, and Col. Allen J. Greer. White army officials spread rumors about the black troops to French civilians, calling them rapists. Furthermore, the 92nd Division encountered their most challenging incident during the Allied Meuse-Argonne offensive in September 1918. During the offensive, the 368th Infantry Regiment of the 92nd Division failed to complete an assignment on the front lines. Ignoring the lack of training, equipment, and communicaiton provided to the men, army officials touted the incident as evidence that African American officers and soldiers were failures to the war effort. African American soldiers contested the slanderous assertions of the Army well into the post war period.
The first African American draftees to leave the City of Reading departed on October 27th 1917. A total of 8 men assembled in front of the Courthouse at 8 AM to begin their departure. The 8 draftees were seated in automobiles draped in American flags. A parade was led by the Cadet Band with the Improved Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks in the World (I.B.P.O.E.W.) marching in front. The parade started at the Courthouse, made its way to 6th and Penn, marched down to 4th Street, counter marched to 6th Street, and then headed north on 6th Street to the Outer Station. According to the Reading Eagle’s account of the day “no lot of selected men received a finer farewell”. All lodge members carried American flags as the automobiles slowly moved out 6th Street. The Reading Eagle also noted that the men carried cards bearing the words: “Forward; to preserve for all mankind the freedom that the government of the United States has preserved for us; Reading Pa.” As the draftees and their families made for the Outer Station, the band assembled on the platform and all hats were removed for “The Star Spangled Banner.” The draftees were headed for Camp Meade, Virginia.
It wasn’t until August 5, 1918 when the second group of African American draftees departed from Reading for their service. 31 men gathered at the Baer Building at Court & Church Streets to embark on their journey to Camp Custer in Battle Creek, Michigan. At 7AM, a parade began and was led by the Reading Patriotic Committee, The Peerless Band and 400 family and friends. Most draftees were members of the I.B.P.O.E.W., or “colored Elks.” The Reading New-Times declared “A happier crowd of selected men never left the Outer Station” as the “good natured draftees” paraded toward the train depot singing “The Star Spangled Banner” and “Dixie.”
William C. Gilyard was one of approximately 350,000 African American soldiers who served during World War I. After the war he moved to Reading, PA, seeking employment opportunities. As a trained blacksmith, one of Gilyard’s first jobs in Reading was with the American Chain and Cable Company, which later became Carpenter Technology. Van Gilyard, William’s grandson and the Vice President of the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, says that even as servicemen in WWI, his grandfather and other African American soldiers were subjected to racism and unequal treatment.
“The majority of government officials believed that blacks should not be armed, or that they would turn and flee in the face of battle. That belief contradicts history because blacks served prominently in each war starting from skirmishes, fighting alongside first settlers, colonists, and during the Civil and Spanish-American wars, just to name a few. My grandfather served (in WWI) and he expected to have some equality when he returned home. But of course, when an African American (soldier) returned home and was walking the streets in uniform, it was frowned upon. They were sometimes jumped and their uniforms were torn off of them.”
Even in the face of discrimination and unequal treatment, African Americans fought for freedom, both at home and abroad. Their legacy of service and accomplishment lives on today thanks to those who work to preserve African American history. In Berks County, the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum is a premier resource for local African American history.
Richard Polityka is a longtime volunteer at the Berks History Center and project leader of the Berks History Center’s World War I & Berks project that commemorates the 100th Anniversary of the Great War.
The Berks History Center thanks Van Gilyard, Vice President of the Central PA African American Museum, for providing research, resources and his personal contributions to this article.
In 1780, Pennsylvania passed a gradual emancipation act. The act marked the start of the decline of slavery in the state. Still, the act’s specifics were more gradual than immediate, which created a system that allowed slavery to persist in this state. There were slaves in Berks County just like many other places in the state. Like elsewhere these enslaved people struggled to gain that freedom.
In 1796, an eight year old African American girl named Margaret was sold to Thomas Boyd for the sum of forty pounds. More than likely, Margaret worked as a domestic servant taking care of her master’s house. What is striking about Margaret’s case was that slaves were, in 1780, not allowed to be imported into the state and everyone born in Pennsylvania after 1780 was not to be considered a slave but indentured. Despite these regulations, Margaret was clearly considered a slave by Boyd in this document.
After many years of unsanctioned enslavement, Margaret gained her freedom in 1816. But, the bill of sale suggests that she did so at a steep price. The bill states that between 1816 and 1819 Margaret paid $117.75 for her freedom. This cost her almost three times her original sale price in 1796. Like so many others, Margaret bought freedom at an inflated price when she should have already been free. All enslaved people were supposed to be freed at the age of 28 in Pennsylvania. In 1816, Margaret reached the age of 28. This document clearly shows the extent to which black Americans went to better their lives in a society that constantly attempted to cripple their advancement.
Written by guest blogger, Sean Anderson as part of a project funded by the National Endowment for Humanities entitled: Metadata, Marketing, and a Local Archive: Creating Popular Interest from Archival Sources at the Berks History Center Research Library.
In the present climate of national discord and self-interest, it’s especially important to remember those individuals who risked everything to help others, despite the contempt of the majority.
German Quakers in Germantown were the first to protest the holding of slaves in 1688. What became known as the Underground Railroad existed in Washington’s time—as early as 1786. This movement was run mostly by Quaker and Amish families. The roots of the Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania started near Columbia and Bird-in-Hand, Lancaster County. Daniel and Hannah Weirman Gibbon, Quaker leaders of the time, organized a route in Lancaster and Chester Counties beginning in the early 1800s. The Underground Railroad then extended into Berks County across the Chester County line. Thousands of slaves escaped from the South, aided by Berks Countians. Locations included Bethel A.M.E Church, Reading; Pine Forge, Douglass Township; the Parvin House; Ontelaunee Township; and the Kirbyville Hotel, near Fleetwood.
As a forty year resident of Robeson Township, I am especially proud of the Township’s important role in the Underground Railroad. Scarlet’s Mill, Joanna Furnace, Mount Frisby A.M.E. Church and The White Bear Inn served as “stations”, with stops spaced ten miles apart. The fleeing slaves moved from one station to another at night until reaching a safe haven, for many Canada.
According to reports, around 1832 large numbers of fleeing slaves were sent to the home of Elizabeth Pownall Scarlet and her son, who lived in Robeson Township (about five miles west of Birdsboro). Elizabeth was said to be close friends with the Gibbons Family. The dense woods of that area and huts used by charcoal burners (who were employed the nearby forges and furnaces) provided plenty of hiding places. Scarlet’s home, Bon Ridge, is said to have housed more runaway slaves than any other stop in the region. The home still exists on the road leading from White Bear to Gibraltar. This area of the county, called “The Forest”, extended from Flying Hills, south beyond Hopewell Hills.
After Elizabeth’s death, her youngest son, John Pownall Scarlet continued as a “conductor”. Thomas Lewis, married to Ellen B. Scarlet (Elizabeth’s daughter) bought the old Scarlet homestead in 1841 and continued to provide refuge. One of Elizabeth’s other sons was involved in the Underground Railroad near Christiana, PA. In 1857, Joseph Scarlett was involved in The Christiana Tragedy, when the Gap Gang tried to seize escaped slaves in the area. Two people were killed. Thomas Jackson, a Quaker who also lived in “The Forest”, near Joanna Furnace, operated a station prior to 1827. Joanna Furnace was owned and operated by Levi B. Smith, who although not a Quaker, was sympathetic to the Abolitionist cause. He hid fleeing slaves in the wooded furnace areas and in the charcoal huts. Henry Segner, a Joanna Furnace employee, used his knowledge of these woodlands to guide fleeing slaves. His home still stands along Route 10, one mile south of Plow Church.
Another stop, deep in the woodlands of Fingal’s Castle (now an unrecognizable pile of rocks) were the pond fields of Chestnut Hill. It was in this area that fleeing slaves stayed with the Cole Family before moving on to the “Welsh Mountains,” which then led to the Honey Brook area. In White Bear, Thomas Lewis, a Quaker, received many runaways—The White Bear Inn opened in 1815. A number of Hopewell Furnace’s African-American workers lived in “the Forest” nearby. Beginning in 1835, this area served as a safe haven for runaway slaves on The Underground Railroad along Six Penny Creek. By 1856, the black community established the Mount Frisby A.M.E. Church, yet another station on the Underground Railroad in Berks County.
The Fugitive Slave Law passed in 1850 made conditions worse, but ultimately turned people against slavery. The Underground Railroad ended with the Emancipation Proclamation in 1862. By then as many as 75,000 slaves had made it to freedom and thousands of people were involved.
The power of brave people to effect change is boundless.
Article Researched & Written by Gail Corvaia
Charles L. Blockson, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, North Carolina: Flame, 1981.
Ron Devlin, “On the Path of Fleeing Slaves,” Reading Eagle, April 11, 2008.
John E. Eshelman, “Berks County’s Station on the Underground Railroad,” Historical Review of Berks County, July 1941, pages 107-109.
Amy L. Geiger, “Underground Railroad in Berks County,” BHC Research Library Vertical File.
Wayne E. Homan, “The Underground Railroad,” Historical Review of Berks County, Fall 1958, pages 112-116.
Dennis C. Kurjack, “Hopewell Village National Historic Site, Pennsylvania,” National Park Service Historical Handbook, Series No. 8, Washington, DC, 1954.
“Robeson Township,” Reading Eagle, July 8, 2002.
J. Earl Ruthardt, “Tunnels of City Link to History,” Reading Times, 1991.
“Slavery and the Abolitionist Movement,” History of Robeson Township: Bicentennial Edition, 1976.
“Underground Railway for Slaves Existed for Years in Berks County,” Reading Eagle, July 8, 1934.
Maryalice Yakutchik, “The Underground Railroad Has Tracks Through Berks,’ Reading Eagle, February 1993.