Mercersburg's "Little Africa"
Free African American Communities of Franklin County and the Underground Railroad
By: Magdalena Radovic-Moreno
Franklin County’s location just north of the Mason and Dixon line has long been one of its most defining characteristics. It is a border region of a border state—firmly part of the North, but with strong cultural, geographic, and economic ties to the South. In the decades leading up to the Civil War, Franklin County was home to several African American communities made up of freed former slaves and their offspring, as well as runaway slaves who chose to stay in Pennsylvania. By the 1860 census, Franklin County had nearly 1,800 black or mixed-race residents, the fifth-highest number of any county in Pennsylvania.
Chambersburg, Greencastle, and Fayetteville all had sizeable free black populations, but the community in and around Mercersburg, located just miles from Maryland on the mountainous western edge of the county, is of particular historical significance. Mercersburg’s vibrant African American community, which was known locally as “Little Africa,” formed a lasting legacy—not just in the history of our region, but in the success of the Underground Railroad and the Union cause during the Civil War.
Slavery in Pennsylvania and Franklin County
Slavery existed in Pennsylvania from its earliest settlement in the 1640s, even among Quakers who eventually became its strongest opponents. William Penn himself owned slaves and is said to have preferred owning black slaves to employing white indentured servants. Within a few decades, however, strong religious and moral opposition to slavery grew, even as more slaves were brought to the area. Slavery was especially strong in southern Pennsylvania, including Franklin County, where the economy was centered on agriculture.
In 1780, the Pennsylvania legislature passed An Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery, which sought to make the process of abolition less disruptive to the economy of the state than immediate emancipation, and to respect the property rights of slaveholders. After the law was passed, further importation of slaves to the state was prohibited, and children born in Pennsylvania were free. Children were, however, legally bound as indentured servants until the age of 28, and adults remained enslaved for the rest of their lives.
After their manumission, most freed African Americans in Franklin County chose to stay in the area with their families, and settled into communities united by race, family, and religion. Sadly, the end of slavery did not mean the end of racism and discrimination, and these tight-knit communities provided them with some security. Security and shelter became even more crucial after the passing of the federal 1850 Fugitive Slave Act, which allowed slave owners to capture and claim their runaway slaves, even once they had entered free states. Pennsylvania passed its own personal liberty laws—both at the state and regional level—that conflicted with the new federal law, but the threat persisted. This all occurred during the decade prior to the Civil War, when compromising with the South was a very popular position, especially in border regions like ours. Franklin County was therefore a dangerous battleground area that pitted anti-slavery activists against slave catchers and their informants.
The Underground Railroad in Franklin County
When I was passing through Orangetown, in Pennsylvania, I went into a shop to get some cake. Two men followed me with muskets. They had followed me from a village I had passed through a little before. They took me, and were going to carry me before a magistrate – they said to Chambersburg. I walked just before. By and by, watching my chance, I jumped fence and ran. They were on horseback. I got into a piece of woods – thence into a wheat field, where I lay all day; from 9 A.M. until dark. I could not sleep for fear. At night I traveled on, walking until day, when I came to colored man’s house in the mountains. He gave me a good breakfast, for which I thanked him, and then directed me on the route. I succeeded, after a while, in finding the Underground Railroad. I stopped awhile at one place sick, and was taken good care of.
--from an account by refugee Sam Davis
The success of the Underground Railroad depended on secrecy. In Franklin County, secrecy came in the form of dense wooded areas, mountain caves, strong African American communities, and in many cases, help from the white community. Some runaway slaves were able to make their way to freedom with minimal aid by following the natural topography of the Appalachian Mountains, which led them northward. Most, however, depended on the shelter, guidance, and provisions from the active network of free African Americans and sympathetic whites that formed the Underground Railroad in our area.
The Mason and Dixon line that separated freedom from slavery, sometimes even life from death, was artificial—not at all based on natural geographic features. It was surveyed between 1763 and 1767 to resolve a border dispute between Delaware, Maryland, and Pennsylvania, and cuts across the Cumberland Valley at an arbitrary point. Franklin County, of course, is at the heart of the Cumberland Valley of the Appalachian Mountains, which stretches across the line from Pennsylvania into Maryland. Following the spine of the Appalachians southwest takes you into the Shenandoah Valley of Virginia, which grew similar crops and used the same farming methods—a major reason why so many freed slaves chose to stay in Franklin County rather than continue northward to New York or Canada.
In contrast to the southern border, the eastern and western borders of the county are defined by two mountain ranges: the Tuscarora to the west, also locally referred to as North Mountain, and South Mountain to the east. The routes escaping slaves used in our area changed frequently, but they generally followed the trajectory of these mountains. These in turn coincided with intuitive, well-worn paths used historically by Native Americans. These same routes are familiar to us today, as they formed the basis for Routes 75, 30, and 11.
Mercersburg's "Little Africa"
The African American population in and around Mercersburg—just eight miles north of the Mason and Dixon Line—was by far the largest in Franklin County, numbering about 400 people by 1850. Mercersburg was also at the forefront of Franklin County’s Underground Railroad, sheltering slaves immediately after their crossing. There were two related communities in the area that began to settle and expand in the 1820s: one in Mercersburg itself along Fayette Street, and another to the west of town, which locals called “Africa” or “Little Africa.” Like most of Franklin County’s free black population, the community was made up of freed slaves and their descendants, as well as runaway slaves from other states. They worked primarily as farm laborers or house servants in the area, but there were also skilled laborers like carpenters and blacksmiths. The 1850 U.S. Census shows at least one African American teacher, and one engineer. The same census lists a total of 26 African American households, six of whom owned their homes. The 1856 Mercersburg Tax Assessment found in the Franklin County archives confirms this information, listing seven African Americans as landowners. The tax records also show men with a variety of occupations, including a George Bizan or Bezan, a barber, who was actively involved in the Underground Railroad:
Mercersburg and Little Africa’s tight-knit community--united by family, religion, and fear of persecution—provided safety both to its residents, as well as to their escaping kin. Free African Americans gave refugees food, shelter, and assistance on their “stops” on the Underground Railroad, and even helped rescue those captured by slave-catchers. Kidnappings were a chronic problem in the area even after Pennsylvania passed a law in 1826 that strictly prohibited slave owners and their hired men from recuperating their “property.” Slave-catching was a lucrative trade, so highly motivated slave catchers often caught on to the well-used routes. The locals who were familiar with the Tuscarora’s dense forests and the mountain caves around Cove Gap could divert runaways to alternate paths.
Because most everything about the Underground Railroad was transmitted orally and kept secret, we don’t have many names of participants and sympathizers. Here, however, is an excerpt from excellent article by Joan C. McCulloh of the Mercersburg Historical Society that details the activities of three Underground Railroad “conductors” who operated in and around Mercersburg, including George Bezan, the barber mentioned above, and Acheson Ritchey, who also appears as a landowner in the 1856 tax records.
One of the men who assisted many runaway slaves, it has been asserted, was Acheson Ritchey, who lived on a farm outside of Mercersburg and who gave the fugitives food if he deemed it wise to keep them or sent them to the next station, if he deemed they were in danger. The Ritchey family took into its home a local eleven year old African American girl who had the task of caring for the babies and young children of the people coming through on the underground railroad. It has also been asserted that when John Brown was in Chambersburg, he sent an emissary to Acheson Ritchey to obtain the latter’s opinion about a proposed raid upon the arsenal at Harpers Ferry but that Mr. Ritchey discouraged the plan.
Another person who aided slaves in their search for freedom was Jacob Bezan, an African American who lived on West California Street. Bezan was a small man in stature, but his son, George, was large. When fugitives were approaching, Jacob kept watch for them while George guarded the house. Upon one occasion, when the father and son exchanged responsibilities, the slaves seeking sanctuary were fearful because they had anticipated seeing a small man.
The 54th and 55th Massachusetts and the Zion Union Cemetery
THE 54th MASS. INFANTRY REGIMENT, US COLORED TROOPS
In 1863, the 54th Massachusetts Regiment was among the first Civil War combat units open to African Americans. Troops from Pennsylvania made up more than 20 percent of the acclaimed unit. Mercersburg was second only to Philadelphia in mustering volunteers from the Commonwealth. The valor shown by the regiment improved regard for Black soldiers and helped spur recruiting. Of 38 USCT Civil War veterans buried here, 13 served in the 54th Mass.
After the Emancipation Proclamation in 1863, African Americans were allowed to join the Union Army for the first time. Eighty-three men from the Mercersburg area enlisted and went to war, serving mostly in the 54th and 55th Massachusetts Volunteer Infantries. The 54th Massachusetts, the first all-African American regiment, was made famous in the 1989 movie Glory starring Denzel Washington and Morgan Freeman. The 55th was formed after the number of volunteers for the 54th, including many from Mercersburg, exceeded the available positions. The 54th is most remembered for its brave but tragic attack on Fort Wagner, which guarded the city of Charleston, South Carolina. The 54th was badly outnumbered, and 281 of the 600 soldiers were killed. In spite of their loss, the damage they did to the fort led to its eventual abandonment by the Confederacy. Afterwards, the 54th and 55th participated in successful campaigns and sieges throughout the South. A bronze memorial sculpture dedicated to the Massachusetts 54th was unveiled on the Boston Common in Memorial Day 1897, where it still stands.
After the war, the African American community needed a larger burial ground for their dead, and pooled resources to purchase about three acres south of the Mercersburg Borough in 1876. At least 38 Civil War veterans are buried there, including thirteen members of the 54th Massachusetts. The cemetery, located on a lovely hill with a view of the surrounding farmland, is still in use by Mercersburg’s African American residents. The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission dedicated the marker pictured above in November 2009.
Southern Invasion and Aftermath
The relative stability of Franklin County’s free African American communities was disrupted by the Gettysburg Campaign and the invasion of Franklin County in 1863 that led to the Burning of Chambersburg. Confederate troops unleashed a reign of violence and terror, capturing free African Americans and taking them back to the South to be put to work or sold for profit. Later during the Reconstruction era, white Pennsylvanians were eager to restore economic and social ties to Maryland and the rest of the South. With no common moral cause uniting them, relations between whites and African Americans became fractured. In the following decades, many African Americans from our region moved on seeking greater opportunities elsewhere and the African American population steadily declined.
Nevertheless, the history of African American Mercersburg is alive and well. The Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, built in 1892, holds services to this day on West California Street. And descendants of the first African American community, including relatives of African American Union soldiers, still live in the community and pay homage to their unique heritage.
Author’s Note: I visited picturesque Mercersburg and the peaceful, beautiful Zion Union Cemetery on a brisk afternoon in March. I followed the map and visited the sites in this brochure produced by the Mercersburg Historical Architectural Review Board and distributed by the Franklin County Visitor’s Bureau. It was an invaluable resource to me during my visit, and while researching and writing this article. If you find this information as fascinating as I do, I highly recommend taking the same guided tour.
Sources and Suggested Reading
“African Americans in Pennsylvania: Slavery and Resistance, 164401865.” Black History in Pennsylvania. Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission.
Ayers, Edward L. In the Presence of Mine Enemies: War in the Heart of America, 1859-1863. New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2003.
Ayers, Edward L. “The Valley of the Shadow: Two Communities in the American Civil War,” an electronic archive (http://valley.vcdh.virginia.edu)
Barnes, Roscoe III. “U.S. Colored Troops remembered by Mercersburg family.” Public Opinion, 11 Nov. 2010. Web. 11 May 2015. http://www.publicopiniononline.com/tablehome/ci_16580261
Franklin County Visitor’s Bureau. “Underground Railroad.” http://www.explorefranklincountypa.com/pdf/FCVB-Underground-Railroad.pdf
McCulloh, Joan C. "02 - The Underground Railroad." Glimpses of Events in the Mercersburg Area During the Civil War: Ten Articles. Mercersburg Historical Society.
Mercersburg Historical Architectural Review Board. “African American Historic Sites of Mercersburg: A Living Legacy.”
Smith, David G. On the Edge of Freedom: The Fugitive Slave Issue in South Central Pennsylvania, 1820-1870.
Switala, William J. Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania. Mechanicsburg, PA: Stackpole Books, 2008.
"The 54th Massachusetts Infantry." History.com. A&E Television Networks.
Woman’s Club of Mercersburg. Old Mercersburg. Williamsport, PA: Grit Publishing