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Displaying items by tag: African Americans

Tuesday, 14 May 2024 21:14

Lieutenant James W. Slater

As you have heard us say many times before, the Times Herald and other local newspapers are a great resource for genealogist. Recently, former Board President and volunteer Charles Kelly came across an obituary for Lieutenant James W. Slater of Norristown while reading our microfilm at HSMC.

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April 28, 1943, Times Herald, HSMC Microfilm Collection

Before entering the US military in 1942, Lt. Slater lived at 45 East Spruce Street. He served in the Quartermaster Corps and was first assigned to Camp Lee, Virginia where he received his commission. Lt. Slater was later stationed at Fort Dix, New Jersey and then Langley Field, Virginia.

His last assignment was in El Paso, Texas where he fell ill with tuberculosis in November 1942. Lt. Slater was kept at William Beaumont General Hospital for a while before ultimately being transferred to Fitzsimons General Hospital in Denver, Colorado.

Two weeks before his death, his family was notified that his condition was critical and, if possible, they should travel to Denver to see him. Sadly, only his half-brother George Lawrence Samuels was able to make the trip. St. Slater died shortly afterward at the age of 25.

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April 28, 1943, Times Herald, HSMC Microfilm Collection

His obituary described him as being a "brilliant student, orator, and writer" when he was a student at Norristown High School. Before he enlisted, St. Slater was preparing to write a book. The article in the Times Herald unfortunately did not say what the book was going to be about. 

Lt. Slater's funeral service was held at B. L. Reid Funeral Home at 222 East Wood Street on Monday, May 3, 1943. He was buried at Tremont Cemetery in Norristown.

 

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 09 March 2023 17:14

Dr. Martha Settle Putney

While going through some old newspaper clippings we came across an article about a local historian, civil rights activist, and veteran, Dr. Martha Settle Putney.

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Martha Settle, Spice Yearbook 1935, HSMC Archival Collection

Martha was born in Norristown on November 9, 1916. She graduated from Howard University in 1939 and received her master's degree in history the following year. Unfortunately, Martha faced discrimination and was initially unable to find a teaching position. She ultimately became a statistical clerk with the War Manpower Commission.

Martha continued to experience discrimination while working at the War Manpower Commission, so she decided to join the Woman's Army Corps in 1943. She was assigned to basic training at Fort Des Moines, Iowa. She became a first lieutenant and eventually commanded a unit of Black medical technicians at Gardiner General Hospital in Chicago. During her service, Martha was credited for helping to establish policies regarding equality for all members in the U.S. Armed Forces.

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Newspaper clipping from Norristown Times Herald, HSMC Collection

After being discharged in 1946, Martha decided to go back to studying history. She earned her doctorate in European history in 1955 from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Putney became a history professor at Bowie State that same year. She chaired the history and geography department until 1974. Dr. Putney went on to teach at Howard University until she retired in 1983.

As a historian, Dr. Putney authored two books and several articles. One of her books, When the Nation Was in Need: Blacks in the Women's Army Corps During World War II, details her own experiences in the WAC. Dr. Putney died on December 11, 2008 at age 92 and was buried at Arlington National Cemetery.

 

 

Sources:

Joe Holley, “Bowie, Howard Historian Martha Putney,” Washington Post. Monday, December 22, 2008. https://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2008/12/21/AR2008122102051.html

Judy Baca. "How One Woman Made a Difference: Norristown native's past chronicled in Tome Brokaw's 'Greatest Generation'". Times Herald. Monday February 22, 1999.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 25 February 2021 17:50

Ice Cream

With all the snow that’s been dropping on us lately, a fad for making snow ice cream has been popping up around the internet. And it got us thinking – who was the first person to sell ice cream in Norristown?

Edward Hocker addressed that question in a June, 1940 “Up and Down Montgomery County” article in the Times-Herald. He refers to a 1912 memoir of Sarah Slinguff Rex in which she claimed Emanuel Johnson was the first local businessman to offer ice cream. He sold cakes and candies at his shop on the northeast corner of DeKalb and Lafayette Streets. In the summer he added ice cream, originally just for the Fourth of July and other summer days when Norristown had a parade. By 1837, he was offering ice cream all summer.

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I found several of his advertisements in the late 1830’s.

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I couldn’t find out much about Emanuel Johnson, though. City directories only go back to 1860, and he isn’t listed there. Johnson does appear in the 1840 census as a head of a household of seven. Note that he is the only male in the family. Unfortunately, it’s not until the 1850 census that census takers started collecting more information.

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The 1840 Census from Ancestry.com

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The 1850 Census from Ancestry.com

But the only Emanuel Johnson in the 1850 census is 12 years old. It could be that Emanuel the ice cream seller had passed away and this is his widow, but no boys were listed in the 1840 census. So, I checked our obituary index for the 1840’s and found one for Emanuel Johnson in the April 28, 1847 issue of the Herald. It’s merely a brief statement of his death on the 23rd. Such curt announcements were not unusual in the 19th century.

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Johnson’s advertisements stopped appearing in the Herald and Free Press around 1840. It’s possible he stopped selling ice cream in the face of competition. Hocker reported that Ward’s restaurant added ice cream to their summer menu. I found an advertisement for Ward’s in 1841 promoting its private ladies’ dining room.

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It's sad that the enterprising Johnson wasn't able to enjoy his sucess for very long.

 

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 18 February 2021 21:50

Desegregation in Norristown

When Pennsylvania passed the Public School Act in 1834, Montgomery County didn’t exactly jump to comply. Some townships took several years to establish public schools because both the Quakers and the Pennsylvania Germans believed education was the province was the family and the church.

Norristown opened its first school in 1836 on Church Street with 113 pupils, all white. When more space was needed, the school board rented rooms. In 1839 the board rented out a lower room in Thomas Bruff’s house for educating black students. Jacob Glasgow was the teacher, and he had 15 students to begin with.

In 1846 the board rented space at Mount Zion AME Church, which was then on Chain St. When the Oak Street School opened in 1859, the white children moved into that building, and the African-American children moved into the old school for a brief time. Soon, they were moved again to a two-story building on Oak St. That was replaced by the Powell Street School in 1874.

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Powell Street School

According to Edward Hocker, by the 1880’s the African-American parents in Norristown began to insist that their children be permitted to attend any convenient school in the borough. In 1883, the board decided to integrate Norristown’s schools, and all students were allowed to attend the school most convenient to them. There was little controversy over desegregation in Norristown.

In 1900, the county school superintendent, Joseph K. Gotwals, delivered an address to the Historical Society of Montgomery County on the history of education in Norristown. He only touched on desegregation briefly, but he said, “I cannot help feeling that the old separate arrangement was the better one.” He went on to say that the Powell Street School had 100 pupils. Twenty years later, he was doubtful that there were that many African-American students in all of Norristown’s schools despite the population increase.

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“The larger colored girls and boys would come to school when they were with their kind. They were willing to go and read in the first reader when their companions of the same age were in the same grade, but after the change was made we found that they did not want to go into the 'baby' room with six or eight-year white children.”

Gotwals didn’t seem to think there might be other solutions to this problem or that it might be his job to find them.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 11 February 2021 18:13

James A. Bland

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You might not know the name James A. Bland, but you probably know a few of the 700 songs he wrote. Most famous in this area is “Oh Dem Golden Slippers,” a minstrel tune that’s the theme of the Philadelphia Mummers Parade. He also wrote “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny.”

Bland was born in Flushing, NY in 1854. His father, a free man, was one of first African-Americans to graduate from college (Oberlin in 1845). It was his father who bought James his first banjo. As a teenager he began performing professionally, but had trouble making a living at it. He enrolled at Howard University, majored in the Liberal Arts, and graduated at 19. Still, success on the stage eluded him.

According to the Songwriters Hall of Fame, Bland had trouble finding work in minstrel groups because they preferred to hire white musicians in blackface. Eventually he joined an all-Black minstrel band and toured the US. Bland played with several groups, while also writing hit songs. He traveled to England with a group called the Callender-Haverly Minstrels and played before Queen Victoria.

Many of his songs were popular in the nineteenth century including “Hand Me Down My Walking Cane” and “De Golden Wedding.” While he made a lot of money from his music, Bland died in poverty in Philadelphia in 1911. He was buried in an unmarked grave in Merion Cemetery in Bala Cynwyd.

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In 1940, “Carry Me Back to Old Virginny” became Virginia’s state song after petitioning by the Lions Clubs of Virginia. The Lions Clubs also conducted a search for Bland’s grave. In 1946, Governor William M. Tuck and members of the Lions Clubs of Virginia, as well as members of the Norristown Lions Club dedicated a new marker on the grave.

Unfortunately, there don’t seem to be any recordings of Bland performing his songs, but many have been covered by other artists like Ray Charles, Bing Crosby, and Louis Armstrong. This instrumental version on YouTube was my favorite.

 

Sources: Songwriters Hall of Fame, https://www.songhall.org/profile/James_Bland

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 28 February 2019 21:18

The Human Relations Commission

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Interior of the New York Store

One of most interesting collections we have here at the Historical Society of Montgomery County is the Leonard Friedman Papers, much of which concerns his work on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission.

Leonard Friedman was born in Philadelphia in 1918 and attended the University of Pennsylvania. He served in the army during World War II, then spent fifty years running his family’s business, the New York Store. In the 1970’s he served on Norristown’s Human Relations Commission which was created in 1966 to help the borough cope with racial issues.

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His papers have many items relating to race relations in Norristown in the late 1960’s and early 1970’s, providing a snapshot of life in Norristown during a turbulent time. One newsletter of the Interfaith Committee for Social Action describes a protest of 150 young black people at Norristown Borough Hall. At that protest Arthur Hall, a young man from Norristown, gave a speech demanding more respectful treatment from local police, questioning the curfew, and for an increase in the number of black police officers.

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Arthur Hall from the 1968 Norristown High School Spice yearbook

Another issue Friedman’s papers focus on is fair housing in Norristown. In 1969, borough council passed Ordinance 2065 prohibiting racial discrimination in housing. There’s many newspaper clippings about white sellers refusing offers from black buyers and information for realtors to prevent discrimination in housing.

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Pamphlet from the Fair Housing Committee

The Human Relations Commission was also concerned with the Norristown Area School District. Throughout the country at this time, cities tried to desegregate schools through bussing. A newsletter called "News ‘N’ Views" distributed by the school district explains six proposed ideas for achieving racial balance in NASD schools. In addition to that, Mr. Friedman himself wrote a letter to a Harold T. Huber, looking for help in redesigning NASD’s curriculum to include African-American history.

From the records, it looks like Friedman was on the Commission until 1973. There is a Human Relations Commission in Norristown today, but it was started in 2018, according to its website, so I don’t know the fate of the original commission.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 21 February 2019 21:06

“I will save my horses, or perish myself!”

 

Ned Hector

Historical marker at the site of Ned Hector's log cabin

Montgomery County has a rich history of the American Revolution. George Washington, Lafayette, and “Mad” Anthony Wayne all came through our county at some point. But today, we’re going to look a less well known soldier of the revolution: Edward “Ned” Hector.

Ned Hector first comes into the historical record at the Battle of Brandywine in September, 1777. He served in Colonel John Proctor’s 3rd PA Artillery as a teamster (wagon driver) and bombardier (part of a cannon crew). He was one of about 9000 black soldiers to fight on the American side (many more fought for the British who promised freedom) His commanding officer ordered a retreat calling for everything to be abandoned, including weapons and horses. Hector was heard to say, “I will save my horses, or perish myself.”

In civilian life, Hector had also worked as a teamster, so we can assume that he was skilled in managing horses. He not only saved himself and the horses, but many discarded weapons, keeping them out the hands of the British.

Hector also fought at the Battle of Germantown and probably served in the militia until 1780.

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An example of a cannon crew of the Revolutionary era

We don’t know exactly where or when he was born, but probably around 1744. After the war, he settled in a sparsely populated part of Plymouth township, which would later became part of Conshohocken (founded in 1850). His log cabin was at Hector and Fayette Streets. Hector St. was named after him in 1850.

In the early Republic, many veterans had trouble getting pensions from the federal government, and Ned Hector was no different. He petitioned Congress in 1827, 1829, and 1833, and was rejected all three times. In 1833, Congress did award him a one-time reward of $40. He died one year later at the age of 90.  He might have originally been buried at Mt. Zion AME Church in Norristown, but the bodies from that graveyard were relocated to Robert's Cemetery in King of Prussia.  It is most likely that his remains are there.

Sadly, his wife, Jude, died very soon thereafter (some records say one hour after Ned’s funeral and some say two days later). They probably had several children.  One son Charles married a widowed woman who had been born into slavery named Leah. Leah Hector outlived her second husband dying at the age of 108 in Bridgeport. She’s listed in the 1860 Census as a “washerwoman,” but a 1929 Times Herald article by “Norris” says that she was known for making and selling herbal medicines.

Leah Hector

There are no images of Ned Hector, so I’ll leave you with a picture of Noah Lewis, who has extensively researched Ned Hector and often plays Hector in re-enactments.  Much of the information in this article was based on Noah's work, especially his 2013 article in the Historical Society's Bulletin, "Being Edward Hector."  Check out his website: nedhector.com.

Noah

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 07 February 2019 19:53

LaMott A. M. E. Church

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Originally known as Camptown, the village of LaMott lies in Cheltenham Township, right on the border of Philadelphia. The name Camptown came from Camp William Penn, the first federal camp to train African-American troops during the Civil War. The camp was on land owned by Edward M. Davis which he leased to the federal government. He was the son-in-law of Lucretia Mott, one of Montgomery County’s most famous residents. She was a Quaker minister, women’s rights advocate, and abolitionist who also lived in Camptown from 1857 until her death in 1880.

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After the Civil War, Davis developed the land into the community Camptown, seilling land to both newly freed African-Americans and Irish immigrants. William Butcher, who worked for Davis as a farmer, was the first black man live in the area, on the street that was eventually known as Butcher Street.

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George Henry was the first black man to purchase a home in what would become La Mott, buying land in 1868. The area’s name was changed to La Mott, in 1888 when the post office opened (there was already a Camptown, Pa.). Lucretia Mott had died in 1880, and the post office was named in her honor.

In our collection at the Historical Society, we have a 75th anniversary book of the LaMott A. M. E. Church (1963). According to the booklet the church goes back to a Sunday school started in the Butcher house, which was eventually associated with the Campbell AME Church in Frankford, Philadelphia. Six members of the Sunday school organized to build the first church for $1500 in 1888. The original six congregants were William and Hester Butcher, Emanuel and Jennie Johnson, and Abbie and George Washington. The first pastor was Rev. W. H. Hoxter.

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Rev. H. D. Brown from the 75th anniversary book

Rev. H. D. Brown oversaw the building of the current church in 1911. Under his guidance the congregation grew and fundraising efforts were very successful.

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The 1963 anniversary book shows off some of the church’s various ministries such as choirs, Sunday school, and missionary societies. Many of these ministries continue at the church today which remains a vibrant part of the village of LaMott.

Published in Found in Collection
Thursday, 23 February 2017 20:59

Mt. Zion and the Roberts Family Burial Ground

By Michael Green

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This cemetery in the King of Prussia area contains not only the burial remains of the Roberts family members but also some 190 departed souls from the Mount Zion AME Church in Norristown, Pennsylvania.  The burial ground was established by Jonathan Roberts, a United States Senator early in the nineteenth century.  He died in 1854 and was buried there.  Senator Roberts made provision for the indigent to be buried in the area surrounding the central family plot.  It is in this context that we embark on the journey of those of Mount Zion who were buried or reburied in this cemetery.

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The journey those Mount Zion parishioners was a long one beginning in 1832 from the early days of the founding of the church.  According to the “History of Mt. Zion Church Anniversary Booklet” the church was organized by Mr. and Mrs. John Lewis.  The church parishioners were reportedly “runaway slaves” who liberated themselves from the South and migrated to the Norristown area by way of the Underground Railroad.

These early church pioneers established their first building at Airy and Walnut Streets in a dwelling house in 1832.  This period of self-determination of reportedly interrupted by slave owners arriving to abduct escaped bondsman and use the legal system to force their return South.  As the story goes, two escaped slaves were to be transported South after capture.  However, the local black residents and two white citizens protested.  The latter paid the enslavers $600 and $300 respectively and successfully procured the men’s freedom.  According to the church record, it was during this disruptive time for the Norristown community that a number of the church members fled Norristown to Spring Mill, some even leaving for Canada.  Members John and James Lewis held meetings and services in their residences in Spring Mill, near Conshohocken during this time.

In 1845, the church members regrouped in Norristown, purchased land, and built a one story church on Lafayette Street between Chain and Pearl.  It was from this location 190 burials were reinterred at the Roberts Cemetery after the property was sold.  The church moved in 1853 to Basin Street and again in 1915 to its current location on Willow Street.  To this day this edifice exists at the same location.

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Once the church congregation moved and with restrictions on where blacks could be buried, the bodies at Mount Zion Cemetery were removed and reinterred at the Roberts Burial Ground in the 1870’s.  It should be noted that a number of black Civil War veterans were buried there as late as 1894.  Moreover there were many Civil War veterans who were active members of Mount Zion.

In closing, the journey of those interred at Red Hill Cemetery is truly a remarkable one.  The story of the Mount Zion Church is crowned by many achievers and achievements to advance voting rights in the 1870’s, Civil Rights in the 1880’s led by Pastor Amos Wilson, as well as improvements in education and the health and welfare of citizens.  Not to be forgotten in this story is the commitment to humanity exhibited by the Roberts family whose leader years ago dedicated his land to the benefit of all.

Published in Found in Collection