The American Civil War left quite an impression on Gettysburg, even though our history touches on so many topics and time periods. We invite you to learn the stories of a very robust black community and the impact they made on Gettysburg. With the help of the Adams County Historical Society, we share with you a few stories from the past that will inspire you to learn more.
Starting from the beginning, Sydney O’Brien was reportedly the first African American resident in the town of Gettysburg, having been owned by the town’s founders Samuel and James Gettys. Despite belonging to some of the last slave owners in Gettysburg, Sydney obtained her own residence after their deaths where she raised her daughter Getty Ann, next to the A. M. E. Zion Church on South Washington Street for 41 years until her death in 1873.
Women in Gettysburg have been known for being strong, and Elizabeth Butler, better known during her life as “Old Liz” was not only strong, but smart, too. A washerwoman for the McCreary Family who lived at the corner of West High Street and Baltimore Street during the Battle of Gettysburg, Old Liz was captured and marched towards the Confederate lines along with many of the black citizens who had the misfortune of being in the town when the Confederate Army arrived. With all the confusion of the battle however, she was able to slip unnoticed into the Christ Lutheran Church (30 Chambersburg Street) where it is said she hid in the belfry without food or drink for two days to save her own life.
Another story from the battle brings to light the life of Basil Biggs, a prominent African American citizen prior to the battle who served as a Conductor on the Underground Railroad out of his rented home at the McPherson Farm west of Gettysburg. In the aftermath of the battle, Biggs was contracted to help disinter and reinter all the Union dead that had been so hastily buried across the battlefield. With the earnings he received from this horrific task, he was able to rebuild his and his families lives at a new home along the Taneytown Road.
Ever wonder about the owner of the very small white structure signed Bryan House, as you leave the National Park on Hancock Avenue? It belongs to Abraham Brian (also spelled Brien and Bryan), an African American widower with five children. He had purchased his farm in 1857. Unfortunately, on July 3rd, 1863, he found his home situated in the center of the Union defensive position atop Cemetery Ridge during the Pickett’s Charge attack. Despite the exterior of the home being nearly destroyed during the battle, Brian rebuilt and continued to farm his land until 1869.
Walking through the streets of downtown Gettysburg can often give you an up close and personal encounter with historic structures and their stories. Many of those stories are related to the battle, but history continued to be made after those fateful days.
Built in 1917, the A. M. E. Zion Church (269 South Washington Street) was the third church structure for the oldest African American Congregation in Gettysburg. The congregation, having been founded in 1838, was comprised of prominent and long active community members, many of whom were part of the local abolitionist movement in Adams County. A. M. E. Zion is still an active congregation in the community today.
While a walk through Soldiers’ National Cemetery will reveal a few final resting places for members of the United States Colored Troops, you will discover others in a local cemetery. The African American community wanted to ensure their brethren had a proper location to rest for all eternity and created Lincoln Cemetery (Long Lane). Lincoln Cemetery, also known as the Goodwill Cemetery, was established in 1867 along Long Lane by the Sons of Goodwill, a society of Adams County’s African American male residents who came together to ensure their community members had a proper place for burial. Interred here are 30 members of United States Colored Troops (USCT) who were denied entry into the Gettysburg Soldiers’ National Cemetery as well as a number of Gettysburg’s most prominent black citizens, including Lloyd F. A. Watts and Owen Robinson.
Lloyd F. A. Watts moved to Gettysburg when he was a small child and lived the rest of his life here. In February of 1865, Watts enlisted in the United States Colored Troops (USCT), was promoted to Sergeant of Co. B of the 24th Regiment of the USCT within only five days of enlisting and served faithfully until he was honorably discharged that October. Watts became a leader within the black community of Gettysburg, serving as a Deacon at the A. M. E. Zion Church, President of its Board of Trustees, and a teacher.
Owen Robinson was born in Maryland as a slave in the early part of the 19th century and was freed early enough in his life to travel to Gettysburg, north of the Mason Dixon line, and create a new life for himself. He built a confectionary business in the town that was popular with all of Gettysburg’s citizens, white and black, selling ice cream in the summer and ever popular oysters in the winter. Robinson was also one of the founding members of the Sons of Good Will.
These are just a few of the stories of the black community of Gettysburg. If you’re interested in learning more about Black History in Gettysburg, consider taking the 8 miles from Slavery tour offered by the Gettysburg Licensed Town Historians or follow the self-guided Gettysburg African American History Tour.