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History Subdues Heritage Of Black Scrantonians

March 10, 2019
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History Subdues Heritage Of Black Scrantonians

In the literature available documenting Scranton’s heritage, the African-American diaspora and history is not easily accessible. The lack of visibility leaves many to assume there is nothing, and those who write history plant false ideologies about the black community’s lack of historical importance. The lack of inclusion into Scranton’s cultural network is seemingly evident. Of those who have attempted to investigate Scranton and its lineage of black people, most lack retraceable information. In the introduction of Harry Bradshaw Matthews’ “African American Freedom Journey in New York and Related Sites 1823-1870,” he mentions Scranton as one of three sites worthy of investigation. Matthews felt it necessary to honor African-Americans who devoted their lives to the progression of their people: “By identifying them, their decedents have a greater opportunity to reclaim them as part of their respective ancestry.” Scranton was not mentioned again beyond the introduction for reasons I believe were unintentional, because of unavailability of applicable records. Nonetheless, Matthews’ fleeting reference may be an indication that an African-American population existed and endured. This is one of many examples demonstrating the lack of historical documents focused on blacks in Scranton. The Black Scranton Project, a local heritage initiative and archival project, is that attempt at reclaiming our respective ancestry. I created the Black Scranton Project as an effort to counter these stigmas, stereotypes and false ideologies that keep the black community locked out of the ethnic landscape and excluded from some established communities. The Black Scranton Project reconstructs social memory by preserving the inspirationally rich African-American heritage in this city and aims to revive cultural empowerment in my community. Black people have been residents of Scranton for nearly two centuries. The Census Bureau recorded that in Lackawanna County only one “colored man, no aliens” were documented between 1820 and 1840. By 1850 four “colored” residents in Scranton were counted in the census. Since the 19th century, Scranton has lauded itself as a progressive city, one of racial acceptance, largely because of its affiliation with the Underground Railroad and the movement to abolish slavery. NEPA became home to many free blacks, due in part to the area’s role in the abolitionist movement and reputation for being a pathway and checkpoint along the Underground Railroad. Local archives bring up Scranton’s participation in the Underground Railroad, but are unable to explain in detail the role the city actually played. In 1913 a local newspaper, The Scranton Republican, remembered, “Scranton was never figured as a station on the old Underground Railroad, but up in Abington the negro had many friends who were always ready to give him shelter.” This historical résumé can only justify outdated ideologies of racial tolerance and “equality” before the minority group begins to recognize its subordinated position within the community. This is the crisis that I have recognized. From 1890 to 1940, many black Scrantonians were restricted to poor communities and menial jobs. Racial discrimination seeped through the labor market. The few employment opportunities available consisted of work in slaughterhouses, domestic services and shoeshine parlors, along with jobs as custodians, cooks, lawn help, laundresses, waiters, maids and butlers. Few possessed minimum-wage jobs. Many people ask me about black labor in coal mines. Did black men work in the mines? The short answer is no; I have yet to discover concrete evidence of black miners in Scranton, specifically. “The Negro is locked out of many of the most attractive occupations in the commonwealth because white men do not wish to work with him solely because of his race,” stated a “Negro Survey of Pennsylvania” from the Pennsylvania Department of Welfare in 1928. When we think of this in terms of individual narratives, it is often advantageous to reject particular details or entire accounts. History is habitually recorded in this way, whereby narratives are selected, curated or manipulated to frame the past in a particular light. Scranton suffers from false realism, insofar that as a community, we were wrong in a belief that African-Americans have no claim to the historical foundation of this city. Let this be an introduction to a historical record of the African-American community of Scranton. Its ancestry deserves to be honored. The Black Scranton Project works to construct a new historical narrative, space and programming dedicated to the black history and culture of Scranton. No matter what your race, ethnicity or culture, keep honoring it, because you cannot wait for anyone to notice your worth, or you will remain overlooked.