Hagen History Center archives chronicle African-American heritage in Erie County.

Ron Leonardi

Thursday Jul 30th, 2020

Posted Jul 30, 2020 at 12:10 AM

By Ron Leonardi

Hagen History Center archives chronicle African-American heritage in Erie County.

Erie native Howard R. Horton was a humble man who stressed often to his 11 children that there is dignity in work, and that education, learning and productivity are cornerstones of a better life.

Horton was a civil rights activist throughout the 1960s and beyond. He tackled issues involving rent for the poor, housing access, employment discrimination, diversity, gentrification, excessive police force, and hiring of minority public safety officers and teachers.

He mentored youth as a Boy Scout leader, served as president of Erie Central Labor Local 603, was president of the Erie chapter of the NAACP, worked for the city of Erie as a housing inspector and was a longtime laborer, specializing in bricklaying.

A lifelong city resident, he was 87 when he died in 2011.

His son, Gary Horton, 68, president of the Erie chapter of the NAACP, donated boxes of his father’s civil rights collection of letters and newspaper clippings to the then-Erie County Historical Society about 20 years ago.

As Gary Horton sifted through his father’s papers recently at the center – renamed the Hagen History Center in late 2019 – he reflected on memories of his father’s political activism.

Some of the clippings and letters his father saved and chronicled are 50 to 60 years old.

“Some of the issues I’m looking at in my father’s collection are the same – just the paper is faded,” Horton said. “If you look back at some of these articles, whether they’re from the 1950s, ’60s or ’70s, you can see Erie has been wrestling with some of these issues for too long.”

Howard Horton’s three-box collection of material is archived and offers scholars, students, teachers and the public a glimpse into a small slice of the civil rights movement from an Erie perspective.

“This collection piques my interest and curiosity, and it does bring back a lot of memories,” Erie County Councilman Andre Horton, 60, said of his father’s collection. “To see the actual documents that my father has his signature on and the work that he did throughout our beloved community gives me a sense of pride and adds to my sense of purpose in what I’m doing today.”

Hagen History Center archives contain artifacts and documents that extensively chronicle Erie County’s African-American heritage.

“We have a really good collection of civil rights history in Erie County through the Horton collection, and the importance of having this is for people to research,” Hagen History Center Executive Director George Deutsch said.

“Whether they are high school kids or college students, this is a great point to begin and, perhaps, conclude your research on the history of civil rights in Erie and Erie County,” Deutsch said. “A lot of the same issues are still with us today. This is a great opportunity for us to share them with the community.”

Hagen History Center visitors can also learn about Erie native Harry Burleigh, one of the city’s most notable and largely forgotten historical figures.

Considered by many as the father of gospel and spirituals, Burleigh earned international acclaim as an African-American classical composer, singer, arranger and music editor.

Books and documents at the center also recount the stories of New Jerusalem, a west bayfront Erie neighborhood that, in the decades before the Civil War, was populated by free blacks, runaway slaves and poor whites. 

The Horton collection offers insight into Erie civil rights-era issues, many of which remain at the core of current social justice reform efforts.

Gary Horton said his father and mother, Mildred Horton, who died in 2003 at 75, were both activists whose core values were rooted in the teachings of Booker T. Washington, George Washington Carver and Martin Luther King Jr.

“My father was an advocate of peaceful, non-violent, direct action,” Gary Horton said. “He and my mother felt they could show you better than they could tell you. Their actions did speak louder than their words.”

Horton said his parents served for more than 25 years as house parents in Gannon University’s Upward Bound program.

“They used that to mentor and encourage young people, motivate young people about the decisions they make and the value of education,” he said.

Horton said he and his siblings were always involved in the movement through their parents’ actions.

“In 1960, I was 8, and that was the year John F. Kennedy ran for president,” Horton said. “My dad had us knocking on doors and distributing literature.”

“We kind of grew up around those issues,” he said. “I remember my parents getting threats. People called my mom militant Millie for just being a spokesperson for the rights of others. There weren’t a lot of documents to see. We were actually living in it in real time.”

Harry T. Burleigh

Born in Erie on Dec. 2, 1866, Burleigh learned spirituals as a child from his grandfather, Hamilton Waters, a former slave who worked as a lamplighter in Erie.

An accomplished baritone, Burleigh, who died in 1949 at age 82, played a significant role in developing American art songs. He composed more than 200 works in that genre and was the first African-American composer acclaimed for his adaptation of African-American spirituals.

“When Burleigh left Erie for New York, he became a top-notch arranger, composer and singer,” said Johnny Johnson, president of the Erie-based Burleigh Legacy Society.

“A lot of times, people tend to forget how the past influenced the future,” Johnson said. “He was a shining star who tended to be forgotten in Erie.”

Johnson, a historian and retired Erie School District teacher, has done extensive research on the contributions of African Americans to Erie history.

“As far as saving the music of the spirituals and other African-American music that was sung on plantations, none of it was written down,” Deutsch said. “Burleigh, the son of a sailor in the Union Navy during the Civil War, developed a real interest in this music and saved many of those spirituals that would have disappeared.”

A new historical marker honoring Burleigh was unveiled in early December at East Sixth and French streets at Perry Square in downtown Erie at the site of a former Burleigh historical marker.

That original marker omitted the fact that Burleigh was African-American.

“We thought that was something that should never be left out,” Johnson said. “When you leave out the nationality, you don’t portray the true history.”

Johnson said Erie will celebrate Harry Burleigh Day annually on Dec. 2, the date of his birth.

“He arranged the spirituals, he wrote some very well-known music,” Deutsch said. “He is, I think, perhaps the most important person in the early musical period for African Americans because he was so responsible for keeping that great body of music from disappearing by just dying-out generations. For being such an important figure, it’s really sad that he’s not particularly well known in Erie.”

New Jerusalem

A large segment of Erie’s African-American heritage evolved in New Jerusalem beginning in the late 1820s and early 1830s.

“It was the first significant cluster of African Americans in Erie,” said Chris Magoc, a history professor at Mercyhurst University. “It was a place of refuge, a place to build and start a life.”

New Jerusalem extended from West Sixth Street north to Presque Isle Bay and was bounded by what today are Cherry Street on the west and Sassafras Street on the east.

Abolitionist and entrepreneur William Himrod in the 1820s began purchasing lots west of the city and made them available at low cost to African Americans and poor whites who wished to build homes there.

That meant opportunity in a diverse community that offered free blacks and runaway slaves a chance at a new beginning in life.

“Himrod wanted everyone to be on equal footing and he gave people an opportunity to become the best they could become,” Johnson said.

Historians also believe Himrod helped runaway slaves with safe passage to Canada as part of the Underground Railroad.

Himrod was a contractor and industrial innovator who became a significant figure in Erie’s iron works industry.

“He had a benevolent sense of duty and a moral conscious to do good, to take resources and apply it to those less well-off,” Magoc said.

New Jerusalem in the 1800s was located in a remote area. A large ravine separated it from the rest of Erie.

“It was difficult to get to,” Magoc said. “It was a rugged passage through that ravine, which made for a good and reasonably sheltered region for its residents.”

Beginning in the mid-1930s and continuing for a couple of decades, New Jerusalem was known as home to Erie’s African-American baseball team, the Erie Pontiacs, who drew large crowds to Bayview Park.

The Pontiacs’ most prominent player was former major leaguer Sam Jethroe, who played in Erie in the 1950s.

Contact Ron Leonardi at Follow him on Twitter @ETNleonardi.