BLAIR COUNTY, Pa. (WTAJ) — Harriett Gaston serves as Penn State Altoona’s academic advisor during the day. However, after work, she immerses herself in Blair County’s black history.
Through his blog “Black History of Blair County,” she debunks the misconception that black history did not exist in Blair County. The story she found goes beyond the existence of Blair County. When she originally started this project, it traced the history of the Great Migration during World Wars Ⅰ and Ⅱ.
“We have the history of the Underground Railroad,” Gaston said. “We have the history of the civil war. We have a political history. We have the history of religious and religious tradition.
Gaston’s blog is associated with the Blair County African American Heritage Project. It keeps track of both the blog and the page.
The blog consists of newspaper articles, images, census records and evidence maps of black people in Blair County. Most of the areas she found were Altoona, Hollidaysburg, and Tyrone, but she still wasn’t done looking.
Gaston noted how lucky she was to have Penn State’s resources to research archival logs and see maps. His findings are also in part with the Blair County Genealogical Society. Its main purpose is for the history to be stored somewhere. That way, there’s no one else looking for him once she’s gone.
“I just see that my job is basically to collect things that have always been there and store them somewhere,” Gaston said. “Whereas when I leave for whatever reason, it’s there. So in 20 to 30 years, we won’t be doing this again.
Gaston is originally from Charlotte, North Carolina and moved to the Blair County area 30 years ago. It took him a while to realize that finding all of African American history in Blair County turned out to be his calling.
“It took me a while to realize that’s why I’m here. I’m not from here,” Gaston said.
She also hinted that she couldn’t imagine leading this project anywhere else. This is mainly due to the possibility that someone else is doing the same hobby as her elsewhere. Since this is a big task, she is looking for more help from the community to find more story.
“Yeah, I probably wouldn’t do that if I lived anywhere else,” Gaston said. “More than likely there will be other people. There would be a historical society.
However, she is aware that she does not know everything about black history in the county. She also knows that there is still much to discover. She acknowledges that the evidence of history shows the importance to someone, regardless of the time period.
“There will likely be more information found,” Gaston said. “I’m just saying it’s just forgotten, and it’s hidden. It does not matter. Then someone looks at it again and realizes it’s important.
Examples of Black History in Blair County:
- The arrival of African Americans in Blair County came in the late 1700s and early 1800s to work on the Alleghany Portage Canal and Railroad (account by Sylvia Shorter Lee on “The Black History and Heritage of Hollidaysburg)
- Moses Brown (May 15, 1827 – March 27, 1916) came to Hollidaysburg as a barber/minister. Owner of a salon/restaurant business for more than 65 years, he was recognized as one of the “richest colored men” in Hollidaysburg.
- Moses Brown’s son, Charles F. Brown, was the first black graduate of Hollidayburg High School in 1881.
- Zion African Methodist Episcopal Church, located at 511 Front Street, Hollidaysburg, and African Methodist Church, located at 1620 16th Street, Altoona, have historical ties to the Underground Railroad. The church served as a gathering place as well as a place of worship.
- Dr. Martin R. Delany wrote to Frederick Douglass about his travels in the state, stating that he was heading west. He mentioned holding meetings in Lewistown, Hollidaysburg, Johnstown and Huntingdon.
- William Nesbit was a barber, civil rights leader, and AME Sunday School teacher. His obituary listed him as an Underground Railroad conductor. He was also elected president of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League.
- James B. Raymond was elected magistrate of the 7th Ward of Altoona in 1893, held that office until 1904.
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