Every February, our country proudly celebrates and observes the contributions that African Americans have made to the history of our nation during Black History Month.
For many years, Black history was lost, ignored, or repressed. It has only been in recent times that we as a nation have begun to educate ourselves on the importance of recognizing and praising the achievements of African American leaders, citizens, and communities.
Throughout Berks County and Pennsylvania’s Americana region, there are many opportunities to learn more about local black history. For example, did you know that in the Colonial era, more African Americans lived in the rural townships of Berks county than in the entire city of Reading?
This is largely a result of the ironmaking industry in the area, which includes Hopewell Furnace.
African American History at Hopewell Furnace
The entire 112-year history of Hopewell Furnace has been characterized by the important role that African Americans played in its day-to-day operation.The original builder of the furnace, Mark Bird, was a slave owner who, in 1780, was listed as the largest slave owner in Berks County.+
Early in the furnace’s construction, his slaves worked the forges and dug Hopewell’s original headrace or the watercourse that fed the forge’s waterwheel and supplied air to the furnace.
Over two centuries later, visitors to the Hopewell Furnace (which is now designated as an official National Historic Site, often referred to as the Big House.
Beginning in 1780, slavery declined rapidly following the passing of the state assembly’s Gradual Abolition Act.
In 1835, the forest surrounding Hopewell featured prominently as a hiding place on the Underground Railroad, which assisted runaway slaves as they traveled North in search of freedom.
In 1856, the black community who lived in nearby Six Penny Creek established an African Methodist Episcopal Church on land owned by Isaac Cole, a prominent free Black man.
The church served as a station on the Underground Railroad well into the later days of the American Civil War. It is the site of the oldest African American cemetery in all of Berks County and still maintained by members of the Cole family.
Following the U.S. Civil War and the national abolition of slavery, many newly freed black men and women earned a living working at Hopewell.
Other African American workers such as Draper Nixon, Edward Ford, Stephen Brown, Peter and Henry Jones, John Hart, and Joseph Tolbert were credited in 19th century Hopewell journals for cutting cord wood used to produce charcoal to fuel the furnace.
Today, anyone interested in the history of Hopewell Furnace can visit Wednesday through Sunday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.