A Timeline of the African American Experience in Erie County

1619 – First slave ships arrive in Jamestown, Virginia colony.

1780 – Pennsylvania legislature passes an Act for the Gradual Abolition of Slavery.  Though gradual, the law represented the first measure in the world passed by a democratic state calling for an end to slavery.

Mid-1790s – First African Americans arrive in Erie County, as enslaved property of settlers like John Grubb and Thomas Rees. It was 1795 when Boe Bladen became the first black landowner, obtaining 400 acres in Millcreek Township.

1800 – U.S. Census for Erie County counts 1,448 free whites, 17 free persons of color, and two slaves.  

1813 – African American population in Erie more than doubles with the arrival of black sailors from the East coast. These sailors prove invaluable to Oliver Hazard Perry in the Battle of Lake Erie on Sept. 10.

1818 – Robert and Abigail Vosburgh arrive in Erie.

1820 – Erie U.S. Census documents 8,481 Free White personss, 71 Free Persons of Color, and 1 Slave.

Late 1820s/1830s – Early Underground Railroad activity commences in northwest Pennsylvania.

1825 – On June 25, P.S.V. Hamot posts an advertisement in an Erie newspaper offering a reward for the return of his “Negro BOY,” described as a “very bad character…capable of every bad deed.”

1827 – Iron-maker and entrepreneur William Himrod establishes the community of Jerusalem north West Sixth Street and west of Sassafras Street for free persons of color and destitute whites.

1835 – Maryland slave Hamilton Elzie Waters purchases a “Certificate of Freedom”  for himself and his mother, Lovey Waters.

1836 – Anti-slavery Society Formed for Erie County

1847 – Wesleyan Methodist Society (“Colored”) erect a Church on Third Street in Jerusalem.

1854-1861 – Anti-slavery newspaper, The True American, Published by Henry Catlin on the second floor of the Lowry Building at Fifth and French Streets.

1850 – Fugitive Slave Law Passed by Congress –  Underground Railroad Activity Increased after the Passage of this Act

1858 – On April 24, Frederick Douglass delivers a lecture titled, “The Unity of the Human Race” at Park Hall. The great abolitionist was brought to Erie by Catlin. Both men were nearly run out of town by an angry mob.

1859 – State Senator and businessman Morrow B. Lowry visits John Brown in. Charles Town, Virginia while the convicted abolitionist leader awaited execution. 

1861-1865 – American Civil War – Erie African American men joined “colored regiments” forming first in other states such as Massachusetts, and then in Pennsylvania. Their service and bravery has been documented in many sources, and a number of individuals from Erie have been identified by name.

1866 – Harry T. Burleigh Born in Erie

1872 – The Colored Masons (today Bay City Lodge #68) organized on July 30.

1878 – John Hicks begins manufacturing his ice cream in Erie.

1881 – James Franklin, born a slave in 1838, opes an Ice Cream manufacturing business in his home.

1892 – Harry T. Burleigh goes to New York City to study at the prestigious. Conservatory of Music.

John S. Hicks erects the Hicks Block on State Street.

1895 – Erie’s African Methodist Episcopal Church has a membership of 39.

1906 – Having arrived in Erie in 1881, Emma Gertrude Lawrence opens up Lawrence Cleaning and Dyeing, the first Erie business owned and operated by an African American woman.

1907 – In January, a public protest is stage in opposition to the performance at Erie’s Majestic Theatre of “The Clansman,” the inspiration for D.W. Griffith’s 1915 film, Birth of a Nation.   

1915 – Shiloh Baptist Church organized.

1916 – Earl Lawrence opens his music studio at 11th and State Street, where he would begin a decades-long career instructing students and aspiring musicians across the county.

1918 – Erie Chapter of National Association for the Advancement of Colored People founded with Jessie Pope serving as its first president.

1923 – Booker T. Washington Center established on January 2.

1928 – The Hotel Pope opens for business, beginning its half-century as a legendary Erie cultural hot spot.

1933 – Earl Lawrence begins publishing The New Deal. Ernie Wright assumes management of the Pope Hotel.

1934 – Reverend Ernest Franklin Smith establishes the Good Samaritan AME Zion Church in the 1100 block of Walnut Street. 

1936-1956 – The Pontiacs play baseball in the Glenwood League, with Bayview Park serving as their homefield.

1937 – Jesse Thompson becomes president of the local chapter of the NAACP.  He would serve in that role five times, earning the moniker, “Mr. NAACP.”

1941-1945 – African Americans in Erie and around the nation fight as fellow patriot to defeat the Axis powers, serving at home and abroad under the banner of the “Double V” (coined by the Pittsburgh Courier)—victory over America’s enemies and victory over racism at home.

1946 – Ada Lawrence hired as the first full-time African American teacher in Erie public schools, beginning a 36-year career.

1948 – Immaculate Conception Catholic Church is organized to serve the city’s African American Catholic population.

1949 – Harry T. Burleigh dies, buried in Mt. Hope Cemetery in Hastings-on-Hudson. He was mourned by a crowd of 2,000—millionaires and “the plain people of Harlem.”

1950 – At 32, Sam “The Jet” Jethroe earns Rookie of the Year honors while playing for the Boston Braves, stealing a National League-leading 35 bases. 

1954 – Erie Community Relations Commission established with the mission of investigating and addressing longstanding and worsening issues of racial discrimination.

The Pennsylvania Governor’s Industrial Race Relations Commission reports that 81 percent of firms in northwest Pennsylvania engage in racial discrimination.

Late 1950s – The NAACP steps up its campaign against the racist and federally sanctioned practice of redlining that prevented African Americans from purchasing homes outside designated areas of the city.  Also targeted were restaurants and other business establishments with a well-known reputation for racially discriminatory treatment in employment and of customers.

1963 – In June, 1,000 African American and white supporters of civil rights rally in Perry Square against the failure of city government to address job discrimination.

1965 – Following Bloody Sunday events on March 7 on the Edmund Pettus Bridge in Selma, Alabama, Erie citizens travel to Selma to join the march to Montgomery for Voting Rights.

Greater Erie Community Action Center (GECAC) established in Erie as part of President Lyndon Johnson’s War on Poverty.”

1967 – On July 12, a riot ensues near the corner of East 18th and Holland over long-simmering issues of racial discrimination.  Six nights later, the M.P. Radov Corporation at 1925 Holland Street fell goes up in flames.

1968 – On April 4, the triggering incident for the subsequent Academy High School riot takes place.  That evening, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. is assassinated in Memphis, TN.  Several days later, a large crowd gathers in Perry Square to mourn the slain civil rights leader.

Bobby Harrison becomes the founding executive director of the John F. Kennedy Center. 

Late 1960s – The Neighborhood Action Team Organizations (NATOs) established under the Lou Tullio administration.

1969 – R. Benjamin Wiley takes the helm at GECAC.

Late 1960s-Early 1970s – Organizations and activities centered around African American cultural pride such as the Miss Tawny Pageants, Society for the Improvement of Negro Youth Association (SINYA), and Celestine Davis’s efforts on black history in the schools commence.

1970 – In March, a proposal to establish a Freedom School is the focus of a “Black Monday” protest at the Booker T. Washington Center.  Drawing a crowd of 1,200, protesters demanded the district step up the pace of change in curriculum and hiring of black teachers.

Early 1970s – Ten African Americans could be counted among the Erie School District’s 1,658 employees.  There are eight teachers among a total of 874, and one of 29 counselors were African American.

Mid-1970s – Mili Roberts, Fred Rush, Jr., and Bobby Harrison become pioneer black journalists for the Erie Times, while Harold Shields becomes the region’s first black broadcaster at WICU.

1970s – Founding executive director of the Erie Human Relations Commission, Bishop Martha Sanders levels successful charges in court against the city over its failure to address systemic discrimination in hiring and employment practices.

1977 – Larry D. Meredith becomes the first African American to win a seat on Erie City Council.

Harold Shields becomes first African American elected to City Council.

1981 – Eva Tucker, Jr. is elected to the Erie School Board.  He would be elected president of the board four times.

1991 – At Mercyhurst College Rev. Charles Kennedy organizes the Harry T. Burleigh Society.

1992 – The great jazz musician and Earl Lawrence student Mary Alice Brown returns to Erie.

Rev. Herlies Murphy organizes the first “Walking in Black History” tour of the South, carried on today by Gary Neal Horton.

1993 – Reverend E.F. Smith Quality of Life Learning Center (QLLC) established.  In 2002, it will merge with the Urban Erie Community Development Corporation (UECDC).

1994 – On May 28, the campaign to “Bring Harry [Burleigh] Home” culminated in a memorial service attended by hundreds at Episcopal Cathedral of St. Paul where he had been a member of the choir.  He was re-interred at Erie Cemetery.

Sam Jethroe files lawsuit against Major League Baseball, arguing that his minimal pension was the result of a delayed playing career as the result of the color barrier.

1995 – Mel Witherspoon becomes the first African American elected to Erie City Council in 18 years.

1997 – Rubye Jenkins-Husband becomes the first African American woman elected to Erie city council.

2011 – Erie suffers the untimely death of Bruce Morton Wright, a distinguished musician who was tutored as a young man by Earl Lawrence and whose legendary career took him around the world.

2017 – The Wall Street Journal reports Erie, Pennsylvania to be the worst city in Americafor African Americans.  Median income was 43.2% of whites’ while black unemployment stood at nearly 25% versus 4% for white citizens.  As it stated, “No major metropolitan area has greater racial inequalities across major social and economic outcome measures than Erie, Pennsylvania. An astounding 47% of the black population lives at or below the national poverty line,” twice that of the national black poverty rate.

2018 – After a prolonged battle waged by Eastside residents and historic preservationists, the McBride Viaduct is demolished.