Little Africa near Mercersburg Pennsylvania
By Maryann Stoner Bell
Before I begin, I must tell you that most of the information I have was given to me by my late grandfather, Frederick A. Stoner, whose family owned land and lived in Little Africa for many years; my mother, Lillian Stoner, whose mother and grandparents were also born and lived in Little Africa; Mrs. Mildred Kelly, who spent her summers with her grandparents in Little Africa, and John Stoner, who was born and reared in Little Africa. Their stories had been passed down to them by their parents and grandparents, but mostly from their own experiences.
Some of my information also was retrieved from newspaper articles, death notices, books and accounts given to me by others. Moses, of biblical times, who is now given credit by most for writing Genesis received most of his information, not from the written word or scrolls, but by word of mouth passed down from generation to generation. I say this to let you know this is how most Black families received their stories and information about their families, not from history books. Some stories were not told until the Reconstruction era after the Civil War ended and in the 1900s for fear of repercussions from the law, especially before the end of the slavery. In 1850 the Fugitive Slave Act prohibited assisting slaves to freedom and allowed slave-owners to come to Pennsylvania to claim their slaves. People risked heavy fines and imprisonment, making the Underground and the rescue of people more secretive; of course, this did not deter the Blacks in the Mercersburg area. Pennsylvania eventually passed a law prohibiting slave owners from capturing their property.
I don’t delude myself that some stories have been distorted along the way; however, I will be sharing stories that were shared with me, that have been written down. Since there is no written documentation, I have to call this “Not in the text book Black History.”
Little Africa, Route 1, Mt. Pleasant, Charlestown, or Africa is located about two miles west of the town of Mercersburg, Pennsylvania and just a few miles from the Mason-Dixon line and beside the Tuscarora or Northern Mountains. How long has Little Africa existed, many have asked me. I don’t know if anyone living today really knows; however, my grandfather, Fred Stoner, would say, “Before the white man got here.” Dr. James Rose, who came to Mercersburg in 1892 to serve as pastor at the Presbyterian Church, stated that his surprise was great when he heard Little Africa was here during the Revolutionary War Days and that there was a flourishing Grand Army of the Republic Post made up of colored men.
Some of my earlier records of Blacks in the Mercersburg area are marriage records dating back to 1815, baptism records, a death certificate of Mr. Samuel Cuff, who, like his parents, was born in Warren Township but lived in Little Africa. Sam was born in 1804, the same year my great-great-grandfather, Archulas Stoner, was born in Little Africa. Samuel lived in Montgomery Township in Little Africa and died on December 26 1895, at the age of ninety one and was buried in the Stoner graveyard in Little Africa. Sam and his parents were free blacks, as well as, Archulas and his parents.
Some of the Black families living in the Mercersburg/Montgomery area in 1840 had family members of ages fifty-five to one hundred years old living with them. My grandfather, Fred Stoner, said the Stoner family was here for generations. From the book My Home Town, the Stoner men were said to be part Native American with seven out of eight brothers looking Indian. Both of their parents were listed as Mulatto according to the census.
Slavery and the Underground Railroad
According to the first census taken in 1790, the total of Blacks and all other free persons of color living in Franklin County totaled 418 free persons and 330 slaves. Slavery was indeed prevalent among the inhabitants of the Cumberland Valley. Some of my records of slave owners in Montgomery Township date as far back as 1759 and 1760. By the year 1850 the free black population for Mercersburg, Montgomery, and Peters totaled 631. Even though an act was passed by the State Assembly that provided for the gradual extinction of slavery, it still existed in Pennsylvania. The act required that all slaves be free on or before July 4, 1827. Any child born before that time was to become free at the age of twenty-one or he or she could buy their freedom. The 1850 census stated there were 227 free black/other (other, meaning other than white), males and 220 black females in Montgomery Township. Where did they come from, I have been asked by many. My grandfather told me the Stoners always had lived in Little Africa. Many of those living in Little Africa were set free by the 1827 act and many others traveled to congregate to the area via the Underground Railroad, coming from the southern states of Virginia, Georgia, Mississippi, Alabama, and Maryland, just to name a few. Little Africa became a stopping point and a safe haven for many and a permanent residence for others.
The Reverend Theodore Appel, a member of the faculty of Franklin and Marshall College, authored a book in 1886 entitled Recollections of College Life at Marshall College in Mercersburg. He said: “One of the most prominent objects that arrested the attention of a newcomer at Mercersburg in 1839 was the large colored population.” He said they “crowded” the back streets and then emigrated to Little Africa. Most were runaways or their offspring from the South, saying they knew the North and South Mountain ran into Pennsylvania.
In these knobby old mountains of Pennsylvania, every path was not a viable passable path to be taken as a trail. They came to the Mercersburg area by Route 75 and Blairs Valley Road, the route the Riley and the Triniwell families traveled, according to Dave Riley. Locals knew certain trails, coves, and gaps that would become non-passable by weather or other influences, ending in dangerous travel. Therefore it was necessary for those who knew the obstacles people would encounter to go out searching the countryside every day for the lost. My grandfather said his father and his uncles knew “every inch of the mountains and trails in Africa and led hunting parties searching for many people.”
Once here it was vital they avoid the dreaded slave catcher. Owing to the proximity of the Mason/Dixon line, the Mercersburg/Montgomery area became a very lucrative business for the slave catcher. In fact a slave catcher who lived in Montgomery Township by the name of William Johnson was listed in the 1850 census as a “Negro catcher.” Several of these slave catchers got their “due reward” by Blacks in the community. I understand the children were told about the slave catching incidents to keep them from straying too far from home. With help from the Black community and church the fugitive slaves were fed, clothed, given shoes and shelter and hidden in barns, caves, wells, anywhere that could be considered a hiding place. Their secrets were safe. Many decided to stay here because they felt safe and/or had relatives living here. Others were led north or west by the Black community. They brought with them skills in butchering, carriage making, fence making, quarrying, dress making, gardening, and skills as planters, carpenters, ironsmiths, cooks, and various other skills, including “just how to survive.” They built shelters to live in, became farmers, living off the land, all the while becoming a beacon of hope for others.
Traveling on the Underground Railroad
In his book, The Negro in Pennsylvania History, Ira Brown wrote, “Slave catching was particularly noticeable around the Mercersburg area. Hundreds fled to Harrisburg and points north to avoid being captured when General Jenkins and other Confederate officers carried on a systematic search for former slaves in the Mercersburg area, while camped about a mile out of town”. Some who were born free were also captured. In fact, a free African American, Mr. Amos Barnes of Little Africa, was carried off by rebels in July and returned home in December. He was said to be one of the first colored persons who passed the rebel lines since the outbreak of the rebellion. Thanks to Reverend Dr. Thomas Creigh, minister of the Presbyterian Church in Mercersburg, writing to Richmond about the colored persons who were in Libby and Castle Thunder prisons, he was released.
During this period, according to the Stoner family, Newton Smith, a resident of Little Africa and my grandfather’s uncle, was captured by the Confederates on his way to town to get staples for his mother. When he didn’t come home, a search party was sent out to look for him. He wasn’t found; however, he arrived home early evening, scared, saying he had been taken by the rebels and questioned about where slaves were hidden. They eventually let him go. Newton went on to serve in the 2nd U. S. Colored Calvary. He died in 1889 and is buried in the Stoner Graveyard in Little Africa. Dave Riley told about his father’s brother who was hidden in a tree in Cove Gap and others who hid in a cave in Dutchtown near Cove Gap when the Confederates came through. The Riley family traveled the Underground Railroad from Virginia and settled in the Cove Gap area. They came via Blairs Valley Road according to Mr. Riley.
One of the Underground trails I was told about in Little Africa was through the woods adjacent to Charlestown Road, crossing over Route 16, on an old Indian path, to Cove Gap; from there they traveled over to Dutchtown then on to Route 75 and Route 30. James (Toots) Stoner, who lived in Dutchtown with his daughter, Francis Riley, walked that path about every day in the 1960s and 1970s from Dutchtown to Little Africa to visit with family members. I had always planned to walk it with him; however, time slipped by, and I never got to do it. James’ brother Bob (Punkin) Stoner walked that trail also, as I’m sure many others had. This trail is now on private land and cut off from the public. I remember they called Bob the “sassafras man” because he walked to Mercersburg to sell his bags of sassafras.
Another old Indian trail, according to Mr. John Stoner, a former resident of Little Africa, was called the “Suzy Path” where they would go to pick huckleberries. He described it as being “up toward the saw mill where there were log trails.” This trail, close to Little Africa, took them to Hunter Road, up to the watering trough from Sylvan and brought them out to Cito in Fulton County. Those are just two of the Underground trails I heard about; however, I’m sure there were many others.
I read that some of the students from Marshall College walked to the Mt. Pleasant School in Little Africa to hold Sunday School every Sunday in the 1830s, and it’s believed this is where many of the residents of Africa received instructions on how to read and write. Many of the men from Little Africa and the Mercersburg area who enlisted in the Massachusetts 54th and the U.S. Colored troops could read and write. The Mt. Pleasant School was also used to hold funerals before the A.M.E. Mission Church was built.
Little Africa also had two graveyards in which many of the early inhabitants were buried. One of our Civil War soldiers and my great grand uncle Newton Stoner of the 2nd U. S. C. Calvary is buried in the Stoner Cemetery. Newton was Robert (Corney) Watson’s great grandfather. Corney, my sister, and I had the chance to visit the graveyard in 2007 and took pictures. We were amazed at the rock border and the many stones, which I am sure, had been grave markers at one time. However, I saw only two tombstones. I do have names of some of my Stoner ancestors who are buried there. The other graveyard was beside the A.M.E. Mission Church on Charlestown Road. I also have names of some who are buried there. My grandfather once talked about the Stoner graveyard in which his grandparents, great-grandparents and other relatives are buried. When his father, James (2nd U. S. Colored Calvary), died in 1912, his wish was to be buried in the family graveyard “with his people” but it was no longer in the Stoner family; therefore, he had to be buried in Zion Union in Mercersburg. There are also graves of two other Civil War veterans buried on other Stoner property in Little Africa.
As I was searching family deeds, I found a lease on which my great-great-grandfather, Archulas Stoner, had signed his X to lease fifty-three acres of his mountain land in Africa to the Pennsylvania Iron and Rail Company. When it went out of business, he and other people lost land and money. Grandfather Fred said the family never knew why or how the land had been lost. Unfortunately, he passed away before I found the lease.
The Church in Little Africa
Before Samuel Burhanan deeded land to the trustees of the Mt. Pleasant A.M.E. Mission to build a church, camp meetings were held on the land every summer. Edward and Samuel Burhanan, James Rideout, George Wolf, and Harry Stoner were the trustees. Many sacrifices were made, and the community labored together to bring their dream of a church in Africa to fruition. It was called the A.M.E Mission Church. In 1918 the church had a cornerstone laying service at the mission. The announcement said, “All who would like to help us may do so by having their name placed on the subscription list which will be placed in the cornerstone for future reference. There will be plenty to eat on the grounds”. My mother, Lillian Stoner, said that she was a little girl and that she could remember people walking up to drop coins in the cornerstone.
The church in Little Africa was used as a meeting place to hold services for the A. M. E. members, as the church in town would be closed for the summer due to the heat. One camp meeting I read about commenced on August 19 and continued until August 28. Preaching occurred three times a day on Sunday and every evening thereafter with ministers coming from Philadelphia, Baltimore, and other places. My mother remembered that they sat on benches outside. People came by bus load from McConnellsburg and as far away as Everett, Pennsylvania. There were tables to sell food and drinks, and my grandmother, Daisy Davis, ran the food stands and made the root beer. She recalled that “Aunt Lib” would throw down her crutch and walk around singing and shouting. The cemetery was adjacent to the church. I found death notices of some people who are buried there.
Mr. Jesse Smith, colored, for many years past served as minister of the colored congregation at this place. He died at his residence at an advanced age in 1872. He may have been one of our first Black ministers for the Mercersburg area as well as my great-great grandfather, Alexander Watson.
My mother said the church ended in the 1930s and 1940s. Many people left Little Africa to go to the city or towns to find work, and the church leaders died.
Picnics and Dances in Little Africa
Yearly picnics were held in Little Africa that lasted for a week. Mr. Harry Stoner and his mother Miss Jane held these picnics during full moon, as there was no electricity. Pine wood was burned on piers for lighting. People came from miles around. When I asked my mother where they slept if they stayed for a week, she said, “wherever they could.” Some slept in chairs in the homes of friends and relatives, and some slept on porches. “Someone was always willing to put up one or two for the night”, she said. It was like “old home week.” People who had once lived in the area came back to see family, celebrate, and renew old friendships.
Musical entertainment was provided by the Stoner men. I found an article from 1911 that said “An old time African dance will be given at town hall Thursday night in Mercersburg. The Stoner orchestra will furnish the music. Twenty-five cents admission.”
Mr. John Stoner, a former resident of Little Africa and second generation of the Stoner entertainers and grandson of Harry Stoner, reminisced about the Stoner Quartet, composed of his brothers and him who sang on WCHA radio every Saturday and sang in churches on Sundays. He said, “When the Red light came on they were on the air.” John played the mandolin, guitar, and harmonica. His brothers, James, “Big James” (as he was fondly called) sang and played the guitar, his brother Newton played guitar, Roy sang and could yodel, and Manny sang. One of the brothers, I recall, played spoons. His dad, James (Toots) Stoner, played the mandolin. John said his proudest moment occurred when they sang “To God be the Glory” at the Keptler Theater, a performing and visual arts venue, in Hagerstown, Maryland. I remember the men singing when they all got together over the holidays for shrimp feeds and picnics at their sister’s (Francis Riley) home. When I asked John who taught them to play the instruments, he stated “NO ONE, IT WAS JUST A GIFT FROM GOD.”
Memories of Little Africa from the Writings of Lillian Davis Stoner, Mother of Maryann
“I remember one Sunday morning, when I was a small child, sitting with my grandmother on her front porch when we lived on the “Hill” (Pig’s Misery), now known as Fairview Avenue in Mercersburg. My grandmother lived across the road from the White cemetery. We lived a few houses away from her. We were looking towards Africa Lane now known as Karper Road. Now and then my grandmother would say “there goes,” and she would name a person. I would look and think that she has good eyes to see and recognize a person that far away, but she did. She knew everyone’s buggy, wagon, and those who were walking. I could see them heading for Little Africa, a small development at the foot of the mountain. It was Camp Meeting Day, and I knew that I would be going that way too before the day was over. Our church, the A.M.E church, had a church, a burial site, and a piece of ground on which they held open air camp meetings every summer for about a month of Sundays. During that time we didn’t have church in town, and everyone went who was able to walk or had some means of transportation, horse, wagons, buggies, and cars, It was a happy time because between services we got to visit the many homes that used to be there, play and run through the mountains with the children who lived there. Friends and relatives came from all the neighboring towns.
“One thing I liked best was that when evening came it started to get dark, they would light, I believe pine wood, on piers built on a pole. As they burned and made light, it also smelled good. When the day was over, everyone headed back home. The trip back always seemed farther away because we would be so tired, but we would take home fond memories and would look forward for the next camp meeting.”
Memories of Mildred Barbour Kelly of Chambersburg
Mildred’s mother, Minnie Stoner Barbour, and Mildred’s grandparents, Harry and Ida Himes Stoner, were born and reared in the community of Little Africa. They lived next door to the Tuscarora Mountains in a log cabin, which burned to the ground. The house was later rebuilt. Mildred’s family lived in Chambersburg; however, she and her brothers and sisters spent their summers with their grandparents in Little Africa. She said that her grandmother made candy to sell for income and that her grandfather had a still behind the house.
Mildred said the home was warm and inviting. There were no screens for the windows in the summer, so burlap sacks were tacked up at the windows. This was the norm for folks in those days. In the daytime they were kept down to keep the bugs out, and at night they were put up to allow the cool breeze to come in. Mildred recalls her grandmother would make a “fly bush” to fan over the children as they sat at the table to eat. It was to keep the flies away from them and their food. Mildred explained the “fly bush” was made by opening up a newspaper and folding it over a stick or twig and then sewing the newspaper to the stick.
She remembered the “fainting couch” in the living room (she doesn’t know why they called it that). “I guess a lot of people fainted back then” she said. She explained what the couch looked like. I remembered my grandfather had one also.
Mildred remembers how as small children she and her sister, Anna, had little buckets they used to carry to a spring up in the mountains to get water. That was their chore. Mildred and her sister called themselves Jack and Jill because by the time they got the water, came back down the hill, and returned to the house, they had spilled most of the water. Their grandmother would send them back to get more water. This was their drinking water, so they tried not to spill it the second time. Sometimes the spring would dry up, so in their bare feet, they had to climb higher up the mountain to find another spring. They were always bare footed as most children were back then. She remembers the large tub her grandmother kept beside the house to collect rainwater for doing laundry. Times were hard back then; however, they didn’t notice because everyone went through hard times. The other families living in Little Africa shared with each other and helped each other whenever needed.
Mildred said that they had big snows and that her uncles walked to town on the crust of the snow. There were no snow plows; they had to shovel their way out to the road. The road leading up to where her grandparents lived was just one lane, and it was like going through a tunnel with large trees on each side. Scary at times!
Mildred remembers walking to Mercersburg in the summer with her grandmother in her bare feet, carrying their shoes. When they got to the Corner Road now Park Avenue, they were allowed to put them on. My grandfather, Fred Stoner, whose family lived on the Corner Road, also recalled a time when the people who lived in Little Africa walked to town carrying their good shoes. When they got to his house, they changed shoes and lined the old ones on their porch until it was time to go back home. My grandfather said his house was a stopping point to change shoes.
When Mildred was a young girl, she lived with her grandparents in Little Africa for a year and went to a two room school house. It was called Mt. Pleasant School. One side held grades one through four, and the other side included grades five through eight. She remembers Miss Ruth Phenicie was her teacher. On Sundays she said the Mercersburg Academy boys would come out to the mountain to teach Sunday School, and afterwards they had a weenie roast for the kids.
Their grandparents had apple, peach, pear, cherry and plum trees. She and her siblings ran through the woods and picked red, black, and huckleberries to bring home. There were two gardens, the main one for greens and herbs and the larger garden for corn and larger vegetables, and there were chickens and pigs.
Mildred remembers the camp meetings and dances in Little Africa and recalls how the men would build a large platform. The men also cut off the tops of trees to hollow out to burn the shavings for light, for there was no electricity. They sat on logs that were anchored on each end by tree stumps. People eagerly awaited these events, and everyone helped to prepare for them. Food and drinks were available as well as entertainment. People came from surrounding towns and villages in anticipation of having a good time and left looking forward to coming back the next night for more. The events usually went on for a week except for the camp meetings, which occurred every Sunday during the summer months. Horseshoes was a favorite sport played by all, and it was extremely difficult for anyone to beat the Stoner men.
Mildred’s immediate family lived in Chambersburg, and her dad had an old Model T they rode in to visit the grandparents every Sunday. When they left to return home to Chambersburg, their uncles would ride on the running boards. She said her uncle, James (Toots) Stoner, lived right beside the mountain. He didn’t have a back door, but if he had, you would have stepped out in the mountain.
Mildred is now ninety-one years old (2017) and probably one of the oldest living people to remember the bygone days of Little Africa and the people who lived there. There may be about seven Blacks who live there now.
Maryann Stoner Bell presented information about Little Africa at the Mercersburg Historical Society meeting on Thursday, September 21, 2017 at the First United Methodist Church.