Mercyhurst, community partners unveil African American heritage trail

Monday, August 17, 2020

people with gravestonesAs the national reckoning with historic, systemic racism continues to unfold, a local community history project long in the making is poised to shine a light on the rich heritage of African Americans right here in our own backyard.

“African Americans in Erie: A Trail of Shared Heritage, will publicly commemorate the culturally rich, historically courageous, and socially dynamic history of African Americans in Erie County—a history deeply entwined with this region’s overall development,” said Mercyhurst University History Professor Dr. Chris Magoc, whose collaboration with community partners has brought the project to fruition.  “These are stories of daring heroism, pioneering innovation, of generational perseverance in the face of impossibly difficult odds – in short, great American stories.”

The centerpiece of A Shared Heritage is a walking and driving tour of 29 significant sites of African American history encompassing the entire county—from the Bladen Road area in Millcreek, a landscape reflecting the presence of slavery in the region, to multiple locations representing the storied history of the Underground Railroad, to sites embodying the modern era and the ongoing struggle for civil rights.  

Visitors to the project’s website will find the beautifully illustrated guide to the sites, along with other features: a concise narrative history and timeline of African American history in Erie, brief profiles of dozens of African American “pioneers, community builders, and freedom fighters” who have contributed to the greater Erie region, and interviews with five history-making figures of Erie’s recent past: Celestine Davis, Johnny Johnson, Gary Horton, Rubye Jenkins-Husband, and Marcus Atkinson.  Recorded through the generous support of WQLN Media, the interviews are excerpted on Shared Heritage and available in full on YouTube.  

The broad geographic distribution of the 29 historic buildings and landscapes—reaching from Girard in the west through a cluster of historic buildings in Erie all the way to Wesleyville and Harborcreek—is further reflected in the support provided by Erie Yesterday, a regional consortium of museums and heritage organizations in Erie County.

A Shared Heritage is the culmination of a project that began in 2012, when the Edinboro Area Historical Society received a grant from the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission to both develop an exhibit honoring the legacy of local civil rights champions Leroy and Beatrice Smith, and to begin development of a countywide tour of African American history.  Drawing on the research of African American historian and educator Johnny Johnson, as well as Journey from Jerusalem—a 1996 publication of the Erie County Historical Society authored by Sarah Thompson and Karen James—Mercyhurst public history major Adriana Houseman drafted the original tour of 22 sites, as her senior project.  “It was outstanding work by an undergraduate student,” noted Magoc, her advisor, “but it was intended essentially as a draft.” 

With no funds to further develop and publish the work, the tour languished until 2017, when local historian Melinda Meyer connected Magoc with Johnny Johnson and Sarah Thompson.  Magoc then secured a $3,000 grant from Erie Arts & Culture, allowing the foursome over the past three years to fully realize the project.

Two Mercyhurst seniors in 2019-20 “really helped get this project across the finish line,” according to Magoc.  Public history major Hannah Pfeifer conducted additional research, helped curate the interviews, and edited copy for the tour map.  Pfeifer earned the Bishop’s Award for Academic Excellence in Mercyhurst’s Class of 2020, and was the first student to earn a Roy and Rosanna Strausbaugh Fellowship, which supports student research and production of public history projects.  The Fellowship also supported the stellar work of graphic design major Samantha Sherwood, who developed an outstanding website, making the tour and its supplemental educational resources digitally accessible.  

Following the August 17 public launch of “A Shared Heritage,” the team will begin disseminating many of the 15,000 copies of the brochure (beautifully designed and printed by Printing Concepts), while also looking to extend the educational reach of the project into the schools, community agencies, and other public venues.

The long journey to complete the project may have been fortuitous, Magoc notes. “What a moment to be bringing this history more fully into our region’s public consciousness, with interest heightened in historic racial injustice and the struggle for full citizenship for all Americans,” he said. “We’re confident A Shared Heritage will not only help raise public consciousness and appreciation of a rich and important history, but also foster interracial understanding and enliven the regional conversation about how to achieve a more just and equitable future.” 

The Public History and Museum Studies program at Mercyhurst University is part of the Thomas B. Hagen History Department. Established in 2003, it works with partners throughout northwest Pennsylvania to advance the preservation, interpretation, and appreciation of the rich history of the people and places of the region.  Other recent projects of note include “You Are Here, We Are Here,” a collaboration with the Sisters of St Joseph Neighborhood Network that created a portrait of Erie's historic eastside multicultural community, and a historic archaeological investigation of the Spring Creek farmhouse of U.S. Supreme Court Justice and Nuremberg Trials chief prosecutor, Robert H. Jackson.

PHOTO: (L-R) Melinda Meyer, chair of Preservation Erie, historian Johnny Johnson, and Mercyhurst History Professor Dr. Chris Magoc