GETTYSBURG – Gettysburg’s small African-American community proudly tells stories of ancestors who fought in the Civil War, of a young woman who shook President Abraham Lincoln’s hand and of the men who buried thousands of bodies after the battle.
But they also speak of a struggle to preserve that history and of discrimination that continued long after the war ended – even where Lincoln himself reminded Americans of our defining ideal: that all men are created equal.
“Our story here in this town, and in this state, and in this country has not been told,” said Mary Alice Nutter, 68, who has been working to fulfill her mother’s dying wish for an African-American history museum in the town where Union soldiers turned the tide of the Civil War, helping to end slavery in the United States.
A century and a half after the Battle of Gettysburg, the nascent museum project is aimed not only at chronicling the deeds of the black soldiers who fought there and those who buried the dead, but also the experiences of their descendants who can recall a civil rights struggle that persists in living memory.
Nutter and other members of the community have been collecting photographs, historical records, and oral histories for the museum project currently housed in a small temporary space.
One picture shows William Francis Penn, a Gettysburg battlefield guide, posing with a group of well-dressed African-Americans in front of a 1920s auto. Another is of Cecilia Eliza Jane Biggs – who shook Lincoln’s hand – in a Victorian dress. There’s the story of local veterinarian Basil Biggs, who was one of the men who received four cents per body to bury the dead after the battle, and the white Wert family, who aided the Underground Railroad.
Nutter, whose great-great grandfather, Lloyd F. A. Watts, served in the Union Army toward the end of the war and went on to become a respected teacher and preacher, said the project aims to correct a historical oversight: when she grew up local schools didn’t mention that African-Americans fought during the Civil War – or that segregation was being openly practiced in Gettysburg until the 1960s.
The path hasn’t always been easy, but about two years ago she found Ron Bailey, a partner with new skills and energy. After retiring from a career with IBM, Bailey has used his organizational and people skills to tirelessly campaign for the museum.
“What we do have is one of the most amazing stories of black people in the U.S.,” Bailey said. “We’re looking for an angel donor.”
Dick Peterson, a former Gettysburg borough council president who is white, said many local people are “coming to realize” that the stories of African-Americans haven’t been properly told.
“We’ve given short-shrift to the black community in terms of their contribution to the war,” said Peterson, 82, who called efforts to create the museum “exceedingly important.”
James Paradis, a historian and author of the book “African-Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign,” said many black families visited the battlefield to pay their respects in the decades after the Civil War, but numbers declined as more emphasis was placed on military strategy and Confederate forces. For example, reconciliation was a key theme at the 50th anniversary of the battle in 1913, and so Confederate veterans were invited.
“But the irony is just so bitter – the black veterans were not invited to the 50th anniversary,” Paradis said. “That’s symbolic of what’s happened. If you had been there at the time of the battle you would have seen thousands of blacks on both sides,” serving as aides, cooks and other staff.
Nutter said the lofty ideals of the Gettysburg Address – given to dedicate the Soldiers’ National Cemetery – was a mandatory topic in school, but the reality for African-Americans was, and is, different.
“What President Lincoln said is beautiful. Love it. Deep down love it. But this country, to this day, nationally, we’re not living it,” Nutter said.
Indeed, only a few years after the war a separate cemetery for black veterans was created in Gettysburg because they were “denied burial in the National Cemetery because of segregation policies,” according to a historical marker placed in 2003.
The Rev. John Spangler of the Gettysburg Lutheran Theological Seminary agreed that the stories of local African-Americans “have been far too invisible,” even at the seminary, which was founded in 1826. “We haven’t had the pride to tell it often and proudly enough,” he said, though that’s changing with new exhibits.
Nutter said she wouldn’t change her childhood in Gettysburg “for anything” and spoke of support from friends in the white community. But she also remembered a time when blacks weren’t allowed to sit downstairs in the local theatre, and that her mother used to tell stories about the Ku Klux Klan burning crosses in the yards of local families.
Jessie Smith, 64, recalled one local tavern that wouldn’t allow African-Americans to enter by the front door. Once inside, they had to sit on buckets, not chairs.
“My growing up, there was a lot of prejudice and racism,” she said.
Gettysburg wasn’t alone, according to Pennsylvania’s official Black History program, which notes that such discrimination continued through the 1950s and 1960s in many areas, including large cities.
“While there were no ‘White Only’ and ‘Colored Only’ signs to indicate a segregated facility in Pennsylvania, public places of business and recreation continued their distinctive Jim Crow approach that was informally in place,” the program notes.
Other Gettysburg African-Americans said there have been improvements in recent decades.
“I didn’t have many issues getting a job,” said Stephanie Moses, 47, who credits older African-Americans for breaking down racial barriers.
Nutter said the museum aims to communicate untold stories in order to “bring some semblance of peace and understanding” to Gettysburg’s complex racial legacy. Ultimately, it’s a message for people of all races, she said.
“All of us, we’re mixed with white, anyway,” Nutter said. “And today, at our reunions there are mixed marriages like you wouldn’t believe. Who cares what color, or whatever, any more.”
“I hope this enlightens all people,” Nutter said of the museum. “I’m looking for love and peace and kindness among all people, regardless of race.”
But she added that “you’ve got to try and see things from other people’s viewpoint” in order to get that peace.