During Hopewell Furnace's heyday, Blacks and whites lived and worked together in the ironmaking community.
What makes this so remarkable is that Blacks were treated as equals by their white co-workers at a time when slavery was still widely accepted in many parts of the country, according to Edie Shean-Hammond, superintendent emeritus of Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site.
She said there are lasting lessons to be learned from the Union Township site.
“Hopewell provides a lesson on treating people equally, paying well and judging by the quality of work and not the color of skin,” she said.
Labor was in high demand for most of the 112 years the furnace operated. Ore mining, wood chopping, charcoal making, furnace stoking and iron smelting were just a few of the jobs that kept Hopewell in blast, day and night.
Woodcutters were especially necessary. It took an acre of wood a day to supply the furnace with charcoal, and 112 out of the 213 employees on the company payroll from 1835 to 1837 were wood cutters. Those employed in the back-breaking job earned equal pay for equal work, regardless of color or sex.
“The most compelling story to tell (of Hopewell) is that African Americans were treated equally, as were women,” she said.
But the story of the African American experience at Hopewell is complex and much remains to be discovered, Jeff Jones, acting site manager, is quick to point out.
Just nine years after Mark Bird founded the furnace in 1771, he was listed in the U.S. Census as the largest slaveholder in Berks County. Bird profited from the unpaid labor of 10 men, four women, three boys and one girl, though it is unknown if any of those enslaved by him or subsequent furnace owners ever lived or worked at Hopewell.
A state law passed in 1780 called for the gradual emancipation of slaves, Jones said, and by the mid-1810s, about 100 free Blacks were employed at Hopewell. Blacks and whites from the village and surrounding areas labored at the furnace. Others worked as miners, masons, teamsters and canal boatmen and in other jobs supporting the iron industry.
Still, African Americans tended to hold unskilled and semiskilled jobs, Jones said, and there is no record showing Blacks working in management at Hopewell.
An integrated community
A number of Black families lived in the Six Penny Creek valley outside Hopewell in what some mistakenly believe was an exclusively Black settlement, Shean-Hammond said.
“Six Penny was not an African American community,” she said. “It was an integrated community of Blacks and whites.”
Census records from 1860 back this up, showing about six Black families surrounded by white neighbors, living along what is today Geigertown Road in Union Township.
Several Black families, including those of Aquilla “Quilty” and Catherine Bodley and Isaac and Anne Cole, earned enough to buy land there.
The Bodleys, who are thought to have been Anne Cole’s parents, bought 13 acres in 1856 and, later that year, sold 3 to the Coles. That same year, the growing number of free Blacks in the settlement established Mount Frisby, the first African Methodist Episcopal Church in the county. Built on land owned by the Coles, the church served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and is the site of the oldest known African American cemetery in Berks.
Though “Quilty Boadly” first appears in the area as a free Black man in the 1830 census, his profession was not listed. Isaac Cole, who first appears on the 1860 census, is listed as a stone mason. He may have helped build the nearby canal and various structures in the area, including Mount Frisby Church.
According to some accounts, Cole had been a slave. Documents show he was born in Maryland about 1825 and lived in Lancaster County before coming to Berks. He enlisted in the Union Army in Reading on February 20, 1864. He reported for duty at Camp William Penn in Philadelphia, where he was mustered into Company H, 32nd Regiment, United States Colored Troops, Shean-Hammond said. His regiment fought at the Battle of Honey Hill and at battles at Camden, Boydkin’s Mills, Beach Creek and Denken’s Mills.
After the war, Cole returned to Union Township. He died in 1890 and was buried at Mount Frisby. The church that he helped found and adjacent cemetery still stand on property now belonging to his descendants.
After the furnace
After the furnace shut down in 1883, Blacks continued to live and work harmoniously with their white neighbors in the greater-Hopewell area, Shean-Hammond said.
But that started changing beginning in 1934, when French Creek Recreational Demonstration Area was developed by the Civilian Conservation Corps, a segregated public work relief program. The project also led to the designation of the furnace as a National historic site in 1938.
Members of the CCC were among the first employed in its reconstruction, but African Americans were not a part of the two camps stationed at Hopewell, Shean-Hammond said.
The stories of the Blacks who lived and worked at Hopewell and vicinity were overlooked in early interpretations of the furnace site, but they are essential to understanding the ironmaking settlement and its place in history.
To say Hopewell Village in its heyday was a desegregated community would be wrong, Shean-Hammond said.
“There was never segregation there to begin with,” she said. “This was community in the sense that we would like community to be today.”