“Be Carefully Taught”: African Americans in Adams County in the 20th Century

By Jennifer Simone ’18

Every year over a million visitors flood Adams County, Pennsylvania to tour the famous, or rather infamous, site of the Battle of Gettysburg. While most visitors primarily come to Gettysburg to learn about the battle, many leave with understandings of the unending impact of the Civil War on race relations. However, for a town that sparks such a progressive mentality in some, Adams County, and specifically Gettysburg, is often criticized for being ‘frozen in time,’ unwilling to keep up with progressive race relations after the battle ended. A panel entitled “Black Experiences in Adams County in the 19th & 20th Centuries” sponsored by the Adams County Historical Society and the Gettysburg College History and Africana Studies departments, addressed the importance of remembering this African American story. The panel included Gettysburg College Professor Scott Hancock, author Peter Levy, and Adams County residents Darryl Jones and Jane Nutter.

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Crowds gather to listen to the panel on February 6, leaving standing room only. Photo credit: Adams County Historical Society

The Great Migration in the early 20th century shaped the nation as six million African Americans moved from the Southern United States to urban cities elsewhere. The experience of African Americans in Northern cities has been highly discussed in recent scholarship, yet often left unattended are rural areas like Adams County. More specifically, within Adams County, there is also a portion of the story left incomplete–the story of the African Americans who lived with the legacy of the Civil War years after the last shots were fired and the Gettysburg Address was delivered. In a town dedicated to preserving history, one will see acres of preserved land, hundreds of plaques, and over one thousand monuments placed throughout town; yet despite all of this preservation, hidden before the visitors’ eyes are the black experiences in Adams County in the years following the war.

The goal of this panel was to paint a picture of what life was like for African Americans in Adams County in the 19th and 20th centuries since so much of it is lost to history with only oral tradition to keep the memories alive. Gettysburg College is dedicated to educating youth, and according to Jane Nutter, this is nothing new. She explained how 49 years ago, in 1969, she was sitting in a lecture by renowned African American anthropologist Dr. Louis E. King in the exact building she was currently speaking in. Growing up, she and other young, poor African Americans would come to the College to expand their understanding about what was going on in the world. She expressed immense gratitude for these opportunities and challenged the audience to use these experiences to become enlightened and then enlighten others as well. Remembering a quote she heard at that lecture 49 years ago, she warned the audience, “You’ve got to be carefully taught.”

You do have to be carefully taught. In a country where the 13th Amendment abolished slavery and the 14th Amendment guarantees equal protection, it seems that all is well. However, upon hearing the testimonies of African American Adams County residents Jones and Nutter, it became clear that the Civil War did not end the struggles within the African American community. Though Jones admits they ‘had it pretty good’ growing up, he and Nutter both recognized the racial inequality that shaped their lives. Segregation marked many aspects of their lives from residency to education.  

Concerning residency, African Americans were restricted to living on certain streets, all in the ‘Third Ward’ of Gettysburg. If attempts were made to live outside of the Third Ward, requests were never granted, and it was no coincidence. Nutter explained that it is painful to know the truth, but so important. The truth is, though African Americans were no longer enslaved, most African Americans in Gettysburg in the 1950s did domestic work for white families. Nutter’s mother did so, but she always made it clear to Jane that “I may be a maid, but I’m not a servant.” African Americans often found themselves having to advocate for themselves and the rights that should be naturally endowed upon them, as for all people. Adams County was one of the last counties in the country to get food stamps, something highly ironic for an agricultural community. Though great quantities of food were produced in the area, it was not accessible to the poorer residents who did not have food stamps. They only received food stamps once someone personally called officials concerning the issue. This delayed effort was largely due to resistance within the white community to food stamps, believing that they would be mostly for African Americans–an inaccurate assumption because most recipients were white.

When it came to education, there was also a delayed effort. York schools were only reintegrated in the 1950s, and though Jones and Nutter went to integrated schools, Civil Rights Era antipathy was evident. From resistance to being admitted into the gifted program to being discouraged from going to college, African Americans were often degraded by teachers and guidance counselors simply because they did not share the same color of skin. One’s heart could not help but ache when hearing Nutter recall a story of high school homecoming. She celebrated, remembering how her friend Missy  was the first black homecoming queen in her high school, but her face turned grim as she recalled that when the photographer came to take a picture of the homecoming queen he said “you?” when he saw Missy. She called upon the audience to imagine Missy being their child and the immense hurt they would feel. While African Americans were no longer enslaved as they once were before the Civil War, they were still enslaved in an unequal society.

The news is filled with stories of protesters fighting for Confederate monuments to stand, something Nutter found troubling since African American schools and churches have often been torn down in silence. It is no secret that the Civil War did not free African Americans from the chains of their past and we cannot change the past; however, by being informed today, we can shape the future. We, as intellectuals and concerned citizens, have a responsibility to take this knowledge with us and use it to shape the world. As Jones explained, this is not some noble mission. It is just being a decent person, and “I’m hoping that because you’re in here [or reading this] that you are that already.”

A Complex Homecoming for Union Veterans: An Interview with Lesley Gordon

Lesley Gordon
Lesley Gordon. Image courtesy of the University of Akron.

By Ashley Whitehead Luskey

Over the course of this year, we’ll be interviewing some of the historians scheduled to speak at the 2016 CWI conference about their upcoming talks and their thoughts about Reconstruction and its legacies.  Today, we’re speaking with Lesley Gordon, Professor of History at The University of Akron. Gordon’s publications include: General George E. Pickett in Life and Legend (University of North Carolina Press, 1998), Intimate Strategies of the Civil War: Military Commanders and their Wives (Oxford University Press, 2001), and This Terrible War: The Civil War and its Aftermath (Longman, 2003). Her latest book, A Broken Regiment: The 16th Connecticut’s Civil War, was published in 2014 by the Louisiana State University Press.

CWI: What challenges and opportunities did US veterans encounter upon returning home from the war?  What was the process of re-assimilation back into civilian life like?  How did that process vary across different regions, classes, races, and ethnicities?

Gordon: Union veterans came home after the war hoping to return to normalcy. Demobilization happened quickly, especially considering how many soldiers had served and how long this “terrible” war had lasted. However, many found resuming their prewar lives difficult. Some of course did successfully return to their families, jobs and lives and blended smoothly and quietly into postwar society. We know more about those who struggled and failed—they simply left more records or drew more public attention. Some veterans were recovering from lingering wounds, physical, emotional and psychological ones. Yet, increasingly all veterans realized that they faced a changed postwar society, and a civilian population largely ready to move on. By the turn of the century, a growing perception of the Union veteran was that of the dependent pensioner, reliant on the state for care and financial support.

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History United

By Amelia Grabowski ’13

“I left Danville when I was seventeen,” Mr. Davis repeats for the third time as we settle in for our oral history interview. Faced with a camera and sharing his memories, the sixty-six-year-old resident of the Dan River region who had called and insistently requested to be interviewed suddenly became shy, wondering aloud how helpful he could be. I can only imagine the courage it takes to share painful memories of a childhood spent in segregation in a city that would rather forget than ask forgiveness. I put on my reassuring smile, and state, “That means you’ve got seventeen stories to share.”

“Seventeen years of nightmares,” Mr. Davis corrects me, and with that he’s off — recounting his childhood, his first memories of segregation, adages his mother taught him, lessons he learned both from hostile neighbors and from the kindness of strangers on Danville’s city streets. Fifty minutes of stories go by before he pauses long enough to be asked a question. He’s been waiting fifty years for someone to ask him for his story. He’s not going to let the opportunity pass.

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Grabowski ’13 with Mr. Davis

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