Public History Matters

Put Your Foot In It

Black Local History in Beaver County, Pa

While researching the topic of music for our upcoming “Appalachian Beaver County” episode of the Beaver County History podcast, we came across this thought provoking article about the significance of Black artistry in the development of country and Bluegrass music–favorites among many Beaver Countians.
Here’s a quote:
“I now know that the Black influence on country music,” writes the author, “starts at its roots with the instruments that are at the core of the “country sound”: the banjo and the fiddle. I also know about Lesley Riddle who picked and taught the Carter Family many of the songs they turned into country music canon and influenced Maybelle Carter’s “bottleneck style” of guitar picking. I know about Rufus “Tee Tot” Payne, mentor to Hank Williams and Gus Cannon, and who taught a young Johnny Cash and Arnold Shultz. These [Black] artists have yet to become the household names they deserve to be.”
This piece inspired us to think more broadly about the awareness of Black local history in our county and how many African Americans have never been given the recognition they deserve.
The silence of Beaver County Black local history is deafening. That may be an exaggeration to some, after all, our pantheon of historical figures recognizes such Black notables as James Howard
 Bruien, Lem Dawson, Betty Mathers, Richard Woodson, William Patrick Ormes, Paul Short, Calvin Smith, William Neal Brown, Willis Sanderlin, Rosa Alford, Harry, L. Garrett, Dr. James Frank, William Alston, George “Tookie” James, and George Walker.
Never heard these names before? You can read about them on the “African Americans” history-on-a-stick marker on the grounds of the Beaver Train Station. There’s also a fascinating mention of the St. John African Methodist Episcopal Church in Bridgewater (est. 1830) as being “the oldest African American church in the county.” Another source cites it more broadly as “the first Negro organization in Beaver County.”
Of course, Beaver County Black history wouldn’t be complete if it didn’t include notable white Beaver Countians such as our engineers and conductors of the Underground Railroad: James Nelson, James Beach, Arthur Bullus Bradford, the Townsend family, Dr. David Stanton, Sarah Jane Clarke Lippincott, James Edgar, Lydia Irish, and so many more heroic white abolitionists. They certainly lived out the principles of their faith and risked a lot to ensure the equality of all human beings before God.
The historical record revealing Beaver County Black history is actually detailed—all things considered–as much as our local historians captured and preserved it. But let’s face it, white history has always been privileged over all others by design or accident. The Black experience—like that of so many other marginalized groups—tends to be a sidebar of history, as it is in Beaver County.
Historian Henry Louis Gates points this out in his thoughtful essay, “Who Really Ran the Underground Railroad?” Addressing common myths he writes, “The Underground Railroad and the abolition movement itself were perhaps the first instances in American history of a genuinely interracial coalition, and the role of the Quakers in its success cannot be gainsaid. It was, nevertheless, predominantly run by free Northern African Americans, especially in its earliest years.”
And all “those tunnels or secret rooms in attics, garrets, cellars or basements? Not many, I’m afraid. Most fugitive slaves spirited themselves out of towns under the cover of darkness, not through tunnels, the construction of which would have been huge undertakings and quite costly. And few homes in the North had secret passageways or hidden rooms in which slaves could be concealed.”
If it’s true that the Underground Railroad was, as Gates contends, a mostly northern phenomenon and result of “white and Black activists,” then surely our Beaver County local historians would have left us with a much more accurate and balanced account of the workings of the Underground Railroad running through our county. But they did not. We know very little about the social, economic, and political dimensions of Black abolitionist activism in Beaver County, at least in comparison to the white activist history we share and rightfully celebrate. Again, sidebar.
But it need not be this way. In an edition of Milestones: The Beaver County History Journal (21:2), there is a mention of the “African American Folk History Organization” started in 1990 by Gertie Mae Young of Beaver Falls:
“Meetings were held at the Carnegie Library in Beaver Falls. The reason for this organization is that no mention of the Black Community’s accomplishments are ever made. Most of the banks and other establishments always told stories of the White Community, and we wanted people to be aware of the fact that African Americans played an important role in our community as well.
“The organization was named because of the present and past history of the Black Community. We have entrepreneurs, senior citizens that have excelled in many areas, as well as students who do exceptionally well in academics and/or sports. We wanted to bring these people and history to the forefront so that all might see the positive Blacks in Beaver County. The motto of the African American Folk History Organization is ‘History is Present!'”
Unfortunately, an attached note from the editor reads: “As of Dec. 2010 little if any progress has been made on this project. It is a worthwhile effort, and would be a valuable addition to Beaver County History.”
More recently, teacher Kenisha Page at Baden Academy started an internet project called, Beaver County Black History:
“We want the students of Beaver County to discover the rich history of our community’s active fight against racial inequality, particularly our role in the Underground Railroad. Find in our web pages lessons that allow you to lead your students to discover and celebrate areas in western PA where the underground railroad served thousands of escaping slaves.”
Unfortunately, this promising effort also seems to have stalled out a few years ago. But this is not uncommon. “No one is stopping us from being involved in the Beaver County local history community,” Karen Florence lamented on an episode of the Beaver County History Podcast (Episode 12: “Beaver County Soul Food”). “We, as Black people, are just not doing it. We have to blame ourselves for not keeping this history alive.”
And this brings us back around to the silence of Beaver County Black local history. Who are our black public historians? What projects are dedicated to capturing, preserving and sharing the voices and stories of local African Americans? Are there any local history museums or heritage societies dedicated to the Black experience in Beaver County?
How long will we ponder these issues?
Note about the title: In African American Vernacular English, the phrase, “Put your foot in it,” is a cooking term with relevance to other things. It means doing or creating an experience to the fullest.

The inspiration for this essay

Cover: "Black at the Roots," Oxford American

Black at the Roots

A lesson on country music’s lineage


At The Social Voice Project, we celebrate history and people through our community oral history projects that give us a chance to look, listen, and record the voices and stories of our time.  We encourage all local historical societies and museums to capture, preserve, and share their communities’ lived experiences, memories, customs, and values. Future generations are depending on it.

Contact TSVP to learn more about our commitment to public history and technical assistance in creating community oral history projects.