Young Yvonne Pittman never knew that homes on the other side of her neighborhood lacked indoor plumbing until she walked into a friend’s house.
She asked her mother, “Why do they have a bathtub in the kitchen?”
“Don’t you ever say anything to them about having outdoor bathrooms,” her mother admonished.
“I didn’t realize that we didn’t have an outhouse,” Pittman says now. “We had a bathroom.”
The story of African-American life in Harrisburg encompasses integration, business and prosperity, and the power of community. It is also a tale of segregation, deprivation and loss. Three family members descended from Dauphin County’s longest-living Civil War veteran carry the legacy. All share a belief that enhanced attention to the small stories of the past can enrich the region’s historic tapestry.
Yvonne Pittman. Her grandfather, Ephraim Slaughter, was an escaped slave, Civil War veteran who lived to age 97, respected businessman and philanthropist. His story and statue are enshrined in a National Civil War Museum exhibit.
Keith Mitchell. Pittman’s younger brother. He’s a retired official from the state and federal labor departments and a National Civil War Museum board member, giving him the rare distinction of serving for a museum where an ancestor is honored.
Sharonn Williams. Pittman’s daughter, contributor to the museum’s 2016 African-American Oral History Project, and an experienced genealogist whose ancestral sleuthing uncovered links between Southern plantations and Harrisburg’s African-American community.
Pittman remembers Slaughter. She rode with him in Memorial Day parades. They walked hand-in-hand around their neighborhood, the 4-year-old serving as eyes for the nearly sightless elderly man.
“Pop-pop” Ephraim was actually Pittman’s step-grandfather, married to her grandmother, a widow named Georgiana Jenkins. Ephraim and Georgiana were separated by 43 years, married in a fond union that came with a quid pro quo. She would care for him in his old age, making the most of his Civil War pension. He would deed her his considerable property—an estate worth $10,000 upon his death in 1943.
Slaughter escaped slavery from a North Carolina plantation in 1863. He served with what would become the 37th U.S. Colored Troops (USCT). In 1869, he moved to Harrisburg.
“That’s the big question for us,” Williams said.
Maybe it was his association with the Grand Army of the Republic or the railroads rumbling through the city. Or maybe it was the age-old quest for work, including the spot he landed at the legendary Lochiel Hotel, hangout of state Capitol pols and lobbyists.
Ephraim owned homes on Boas, Capital and Forster streets, in the Capitol-area neighborhood now known as Fox Ridge. Mitchell remembers going door-to-door in the 1950s with grandmother Georgiana.
“It really didn’t hit me until later that she was actually collecting rent,” he said.
Georgiana shared Ephraim’s entrepreneurial spirit.
In a peripatetic early life in West Virginia, Williamsport and Harrisburg, she cooked on a riverboat, worked in a boy’s school and as a live-in maid, and ran a beauty salon catering to white women during the day and African-American women in the evening. She sewed dresses for her granddaughters. She could turn anything into a flowerpot, including Ephraim’s spittoon, the one he never missed even as his sight was failing.
Georgiana cooked elegant Sunday family meals of pig tongue or stuffed fish—plus her hand-churned ice cream for dessert—but saved one pot exclusively for soapmaking. She ran a boarding house catering to traveling African Americans, lodging those barred from whites-only hotels.
She also took the bus to tend her garden in Susquehanna Township and then shared its potatoes and cabbages with families living along the dirt roads of the township’s Edgemont neighborhood. She sent her children and grandchildren to the best schools available. She put her sister through college. She was auxiliary president, serving with black and white women, at Ephraim Slaughter American Legion Post 733.
“And she wasn’t even 5 feet tall,” said Pittman.
Mitchell and Pittman grew up in Harrisburg’s integrated neighborhoods and schools. Pittman befriended the sheriff’s daughter from a white family living near the Broad Street Market.
“I went to her house, and she came to my house,” she said. “We didn’t know any different.”
Mitchell, 12 years younger than his sister, moved to Susquehanna Township when his parents built a home there. In the township’s schools, most of his classmates were Jewish.
“There was never any hatred based on religious beliefs and all that,” he said. “If you had disagreements, you had disagreements because of some other reason.”
In the lives of Pittman and Mitchell, the merger of Harrisburg’s high schools dissolved longstanding friendships, while “white flight” helped reverse the integration that they knew.
“We’ve gone right back to segregation,” said Pittman. “It happened so gradually that people didn’t pay attention. Because blacks were moving to the suburbs, too, people didn’t know who was being left behind in the urban areas.”
As a new Civil War Museum board member, Mitchell’s “number-one priority” is closing a gap between the 18-year-old institution and the community. There, younger generations can learn the history not told in textbooks, because “you can’t know where you’re going unless you know where you’ve been.”
“Even though the museum sits in Reservoir Park, it has not become part of the community,” he said. “It’s kind of up there all by itself.”
The museum is poised to “open up the floodgates” to visitors and volunteers, agrees museum board Chairman Kelly Lewis. The 2017 agreement that settled simmering differences with the city helped guarantee preservation of the museum’s artifacts collection, and digitizing will provide access to researchers worldwide, he said.
The museum can be storyteller of not only the Civil War but its tragic aftermath, when Jim Crow laws backtracked on the freedoms won over spilled blood, Lewis said. In a play on the term Juneteenth, which recognizes emancipation, the museum is developing a “Junetruth” program countering the “Lost Cause” myth.
“There’s still aspects of the Civil War that are being fought in today’s world,” playing out in such areas as inequitable school funding, Lewis said. “It was an all-encompassing civil war, but much of the story told is about generals and battles, not about everyday people and the huge migration of slaves after the Emancipation Proclamation and the humanity of it all.”
On the museum board, Mitchell replaced revered African-American historian Harry Jones after Jones’ sudden death. Lewis hopes to expand the board, enticing more women and “people of all races and creeds to help us tell this story.”
Williams, who offers genealogy workshops, sees hidden aspects of African-American history citywide—say, in the housing project named after black abolitionist William Howard Day, and in Downey School, developed specifically as an integrated institution. Her own work—and the diligent and coalescing efforts of such locals as historian Calobe Jackson, Jr. and activist Lenwood Sloan—are bringing hidden details to light.
“It seems like they only talk about black history during February, but black history is American history,” she said. “It needs to be incorporated all the time. Harrisburg has a very rich history.”
The National Civil War Museum is located at 1 Lincoln Circle, Harrisburg. This month, it notes Civil War Days with tours of Harrisburg Cemetery and the Capitol Preservation Committee’s flag laboratory on June 21, and free admission, with demonstrations and a talk on Juneteenth by the Smithsonian’s Kelly Elaine Davies, on June 22. More information, including a schedule, can be found at www.nationalcivilwarmuseum.org.