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Learning and Living in Black Carlisle

If I had one goal for my work at the Cumberland Historical Society, it was to prioritize and increase my effectiveness. The biggest roadblock I had run into in my past research efforts had been my affinity for overextending myself. This time, I wanted to focus my attention and efforts on one topic and truly explore that as far as I could. This led me to answer the question of education. In my Ancestry research, I had noticed a trend among the Spradleys.

In the 1870 Census, Henry (Williams) Spradley was identified as being able to read, but unable to write. There’s some discrepancy, then, in the 1880 Census, as it identifies him as unable to read and write. In both the 1870 and 1880 Census, Mina is identified as unable to read or write. Compare this to their children; William and Elizabeth are identified as recently attending school in 1870, and Shirley is identified as being able to read and write in the 1900 census. This difference over generation made me think about the increased access to education post-enslavement, and to wonder how that took place in Carlisle specifically. With almost no knowledge of the Carlisle school system, I decided to dive head-first.

1870 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.
1880 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.
1900 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.

Thanks to the work of Professor Pinsker, I was provided with a list of relevant primary and secondary sources about Black communities in Carlisle in the late 19th century. My first step, therefore, was to read these sources in order to find more direction when I arrived at the Historical Society. In hindsight, this work would have been better done on campus, during the hours that the Historical Society was closed, but I didn’t have that foresight. Instead, I read over these contextual documents in the Historical Society library, which left me with less time to search in the library itself. That’s a mistake I’ll certainly learn from.

I found a lot of important information in the contextual readings. The 1896 article; “Negroes Under Northern Conditions” by Guy Carleton Lee, was greatly useful in creating a general understanding of the education system in Carlisle. In this source, I read an introduction to the separate school system created for Black children.

book quote
Guy Carleton Lee, “Negroes Under Northern Conditions,” Gunton’s Magazine 10 (January 1896): p. 60)

The author, Guy Carleton Lee, cited records of the Carlisle School Board. I was quick to jot that down and figured the Historical Society would have some resources from the School Board.

This being my third research attempt on the Spradleys, I knew better than to expect to find an exact record of Shirley, William, Elizabeth, or Emma. But I knew I could at least paint a picture of their time, enough to suppose the conditions they encountered.

Specifically, after conversations with Professor Pinsker, I wanted to know when the separate schools were created, and if there had ever been integrated classes pre-official integration. This topic veered off from the Spradleys and towards the story of the Youngs; the story of fellow janitor Robert Young’s fight to have his son (Robert G. Young) admitted to Dickinson in the 1880s. Newspaper articles reporting on the case had interestingly identified Robert G.’s classes as being integrated, which directly conflicted with the widely understood timeline of integration. If I could answer this question as well, I’d be pleased.

I used the Historical Society’s Past Perfect search database next. The database was slow, especially compared to Ancestry and the Dickinson Archives, so this was another opportunity to be careful budgeting my time. I searched “colored school”, “school board”, “Carlisle schools”, and “Black school.” From those searches, I found a good amount of sources.

The first thing that caught my eye was “Carlisle School System Records, 1836-1935.” This was the perfect, primary source material I was looking for to describe the schools and maybe even list the students. Next, I found the “Development of Colored Education,” another source developed by the Carlisle School System. I found a large number of secondary sources that recounted the Carlisle schools, including Thomas Vale’s “A Century of Progress” (c. 1934) and “Mary E. Brown vs Carlisle School Board” by David Strausbaugh (c.1985.)

Satisfied with my results, I requested the items and went through them one by one. By reading all the sources, I was able to construct a rough timeline of the school system.

Timeline, created by James van Kuilenburg.

I learned that the “colored school” was founded in 1836, along with the rest of the school system. As the need grew, additional schools were opened in 1864, 1878, 1882, and 1892.  [1]

I had hoped to find some building plans or photos included in the school board’s notes, but unfortunately, I had no such luck. I used PastPerfect again, using similar search terms, but the photos that turned up were few. I spent a lot of time trying to download the images to my computer, so that I could retain their quality, but too late into the process, realized that was a poor use of my time.

photo 2
Courtesy of the Cumberland Historical Society.

Generally, I learned a lot about the culture around these “colored schools” because of their marked absence from many documents. These schools, in every way, were afterthoughts in budgeting and public memory keeping.

The most useful source I found was “Development of Colored Education,” an abridged version of the school board’s notes. This collection of notes specified the exact dates schools were founded, but rarely their full addresses or building details. The most exciting part of this source was absolutely the list of student graduates (from the regular schools and the “colored” ones.) Once I realized I could find the Spradley children among these names, I became very excited.

graduate text
“Carlisle School System Records, 1836-1935,” Cumberland County Historical Society.

While I understood the “colored schools” were much smaller than the mainstream ones, I was still surprised at how few graduates were produced. Guy Carleton Lee attributed this to a “lack of parental co-operation”, or in other words, Black parents were too busy at work to help their children in school. [2] I can’t say whether or not this was true, but unfortunately, it seems the Spradley children may have been part of this trend of failing to graduate.

Doing some simple math, I found roughly the years I could expect the Spradley children to be enrolled. As of the 1870 census, Elizabeth and William had been recently enrolled, and Shirley was literate by age 22 in 1900. This was a window of 30 years, but even so, there were no traces of any of them.

graduate text
“Carlisle School System Records, 1836-1935,” Cumberland County Historical Society.

I felt defeated by this discovery. I had been so excited by the idea of finding them recorded in the school system notes that I didn’t know what to do once I had failed. Then, I realized, I had yet to answer the question of Robert Young’s son, Robert G., and the mysteriously integrated schools.

I went to the Freedom’s Legacy website, and refreshed myself with the story of Robert G. According to an October 1886 article, Robert G. had “graduated from the High School… among a large class of white and colored students.” [3] Armed with the student rosters, I went searching for Robert’s name.

I found it under June 1886. There his name was listed; “Robert Young” under the header “Colored High School.” Above, were listed the white male graduates. This evidence, paired with the school board notes cited above, I believe, puts the mystery to rest. Schools were in fact still segregated as of 1886, and newspapers were using the term “class” to describe the entire graduating class, as opposed to the specific school.

graduate text
“Carlisle School System Records, 1836-1935″, Cumberland Historical Society.

My time in the Historical Society was running out, so after searching for photos one last time, I called it quits. I hadn’t accomplished everything I had set out to do, but I found some answers to other questions along the way. Furthermore, I discovered a more complicated story of Black education than I had previously known. Maybe we’ll never find answers to the questions about where and when the Spradley children attended school, but we do now know that education was highly controversial, and even when schools were available, they didn’t always support their students as best as they could.

Lessons Learned and Loose Ends

I wish I had had more developed knowledge of Carlisle geography, as that could have helped me greatly in guessing where the schools may have been and conducting more research.

Greater access to School Board information could have been useful as well, especially as there were references to incident reports in the “Negroes in Northern Conditions” piece that could not be found in the notes available at the Historical Society.

There is more work to be done on the Spradley family, but an interesting lead I noticed was Henry being identified as disabled in 1870 and 1880, and Mina in the 1870 census. The causes of these identifications may be available through newspapers if they had been the result of accidents or something similar. Furthermore, I’d be interested to see how this ties into the greater white impression of disabilities in Black populations, pre, and post-slavery.

I learned a good deal about archival research, especially when it came to using secondary sources that summarized events. I knew they were good jumping points, but that there was always a bias or motive driving the creation of the work.

[1] Lee, Guy Carleton. “Negroes Under Northern Conditions.” Gunton’s Magazine 10 (January 1896): 61–62.

[2] Lee, Guy Carleton. “Negroes Under Northern Conditions.” Gunton’s Magazine 10 (January 1896): 62.

[3] “Kept Out of College,” Philadelphia Times, October 20 1886,

Memories of the Spradleys

Following my research using Ancestry, I had a lot of questions about the Spradleys to answer. I had started a big puzzle and using Ancestry, I was able to create what I would consider a border of the picture. I knew the names, dates, and general family structure of the Spradleys. What I was missing was the middle of the puzzle – real, concrete details about the Spradleys’ lives. Now, it was time to fill in that middle by focusing on their connection to Dickinson College and the campus. 

After an in-class discussion with my professor and classmate, I decided to pursue a few specific topics. First, I wanted to trace where exactly on campus the Spradley family had lived. Did they live alongside students? Secondly, I was interested in a newspaper article I had come across in my Ancestry research. It was a parody letter written from the perspective of Henry (Williams) Spradley by Dickinson students. 

Just like the rest of the nation, these Dickinson students had used exaggerated misspellings, a minstrel type of

cartoon letter
“Spradley cartoon letter.” Microcosm (1893-94).

tone, and cartoonish features to parody Black people, and in this specific case, Spradley. Was this a trend to make fun of Spradley, or a one-off?

In all, I had a lot on my plate, and I was hoping the College Archives would have some of the many, many, many answers I was looking for. 

Before finding any of these answers, I decided to create a timeline of sorts for my own note keeping purposes. By creating this, I was able to list some of the important events in the lives of the Spradley family in an easy to read, accessible way. These events came from my previous Ancestry research as well as the new newspaper articles my professor had provided me. The highlighted text signifies further work needs to be done. In this case, researchers in the future need to compare more historical records of Mina Spradley’s death in order to determine her death location.

 Timeline, created by James van Kuilenburg.

I begun with the Archives’ online search engines of the Microcosm and the Dickinsonian. Going year by year, I began with a group of words: Spradley, Sprad (a nickname for Henry), Shirley, South College (the building where his family lived), janitor (in order to get accounts of janitor life not specific to Henry), negro, Black, and Shirley. Through using these words I found a plethora of articles, poems, letters, and tidbits of information. 

I learned more information about South College or should I say South Colleges. I had wrongly assumed there was only one South College in the school’s history, but I learned instead, there were three separate buildings. I consulted the archivist on staff and learned about the Archives’ Encyclopedia. On the website, you can access overviews of buildings and staff members, so I was able to learn more about the South Colleges quickly. 

South College, c.1880. Photograph Collection, Record Group 2000.1, South College II, Archives and Special Collections, Dickinson College, Carlisle, PA.

The South College I was interested in was built in 1838 and lasted until 1927, when it was razed in order to build a new gym. I learned this information through the encyclopedia entry as well as the South College drop file in the Archives. Inside this South College was a lab, library, and museum, as well as the opportunity for students to rent rooms.

“Carlisle,” Microcosm (1881-82): 11.
“Boarding Houses,” Student Handbook (1893-94):

Unfortunately, I learned I wouldn’t be able to see a campus-wide map of the time because maps were hardly necessary for such a small campus.

Once I realized that South College was both residential and classroom-oriented, I began to understand why Henry (Williams) Spradley had been jokingly referred to as the “Adjunct Professor of Experimental Physics.” What would have simply seemed like an odd joke now was contextualized because of my greater understanding of South College.

faculty microcosm
“Faculty,” Microcosm (1881-82): 5.

There was a trend among student publications to ironically assign janitors academic titles, and I found another similar instance where Henry (Williams) Spradley was identified as “Dr. Spradley,” tasked with showing students their measly accommodations in South College. 

“Class of ’95,” Microcosm (1892-93): 34.

Later, he was referred to as a professor of “Bellology” and “higher Janitorology.” 

“Old Dickinson” Microcosm (1895-96): 16.

In this same excerpt, a story was told from the perspective of Spradley about carrying his children to freedom during the Civil War. Again, a minstrel accent was adopted by the student authors, effectively patronizing Spradley. That aside, the story was greatly useful to my understanding of the Spradley family history. Through my genealogy work, I understood this story was most likely describing William and Elizabeth Spradley’s move to Pennsylvania, as they were both born in Virginia before appearing in the 1870 census. 

Through these examples, I began to understand the relationship between the students and the Spradley family. Sometimes mocking in nature, but as other examples suggested, revering and respecting. 

Henry (Williams) Spradley was described as an almost paternal figure when students lamented they “didn’t have Spradley to tuck us in.”

“’85,” Microcosm (1881-82): 192.

Furthermore, his position as a bellringer was subject of many a poem and song. 

“A Spradley Antic,” Microcosm (1893-94): 87.
“Serenade to Dickinson,” Microcosm (1891-92): 140.

In an interesting story, “Spradley” was jokingly(?) blamed for a water poisoning. I was unable to find more evidence in the Dickinonsian or Microcosm of this, but if I had more time, I’d like to learn the entire story.

lead poison
“Terrible Lead Poison Panic” Microcosm (1881-82): 96.

I feel as though Henry (Williams) Spradley was belittled in a specific way; students transformed him into a one-dimensional, dumb, “Uncle Tom” stereotype. This stereotype relied on depicting Spradley as stupid and non-authoritative, while also emphasizing his love of doing work (bell-ringing) for white students on campus.

While researching, I found myself frustrated because I know by using student-created resources, I will always struggle to find humanity in any depictions. This process led me to think carefully about how I might accidently replicate the same racism that existed in his time, and how I could afford him more respect and create a more complicated portrayal. 

Moving on from Henry (Williams) Spradley, I found a variety of mentions of Shirley Spradley as well. Perhaps the most interesting and complicated portrayal was in a short science fiction piece. 

science fiction
“Class of ’96,” Microcosm (1893-94): 95.

In the story, a character named “Shirley Spradlerio” is identified as a consul in the distant future of 2000 A.D. While a lot of analysis could be devoted to this piece alone, from what I could glean, the work was purposefully absurdist. The words and expressions used were other-worldly, bizarre, and confusing. The use of the Shirley Spradley’s name, I believe, then, was a testament to how Dickinson student couldn’t realistically believe a Black man like Shirley to be in any position of power in the future. I’d be very curious to hear what other opinions people may have about this, especially those with more experience in science fiction of the era.

In my searches of Shirley’s name, I found a recurring name; George Edward. He was also satirized in the science fiction piece, as well as mentioned in a variety of short reports on campus events. From what I read, I was led to believe he may have been another member of the janitorial staff, or in a similarly low ranking position. I couldn’t find any more information about him in online House Divided or Archives searches. 

george edwards
“Calendar” Microcosm (1895-96): 265.

Another unsolved mystery I ran into – a man named Shirley referred to on a first-name basis. In one instance, a reference was made to “Shirley’s dog,” and in another, to a man who passed out “college bills.” I think a strong case could be made that this was referring to Shirley Spradley, as these references would be sensical for Shirley as a janitor employed at Dickinson. But I wouldn’t say this with 100% certainty. 

shirleys dog
“Class of 96” Microcosm (1894-95): 40.
“Calendar” Microcosm (1897-98): 257.

Lessons Learned

Through my research at the Archives, I was able to gain a larger picture of the Spradleys’ lives. I was overwhelmed by how much information I found, and summarizing/creating a narrative was a point of difficulty for me. I found a lot of use in the student publications, but I think my narrative could have been stronger if I had found more sources (faculty minutes, catalogues, etc.) From this experience, I have a greater appreciation for time management and balancing research priorities and interests. There were a lot of threads I would have liked to follow further, but couldn’t because of how I structured my time. These lessons will be useful for me as I continue my research at the Historical Society, and generally as a historian. 

The Name Game: Demystifying the Records of the Spradley Family

I have never found census records to be particularly emotional. Names, numbers, and dates are supposed to objective things. When I began this assignment, I expected it to be interesting, but hardly emotional. By the end of my research, I had been proven wrong. Henry Spradley, my subject of study, has become more than just a name and a set of numbers. Through census records, marriage and death certificates, and the quickly growing family tree I have constructed, I discovered respect and admiration for Spradley’s family, a family I will never meet. 

Photograph of Henry Spradley.
Henry Spradley, House Divided.

As with many subjects of historical research, I am far from being the first person to research his family, so I began where others had left off. Cursory searches of Dickinson’s House Divided and the Dickinson and Slavery pages were fruitful. I found the work of Colin Macfarlane, a 2011 student of Professor Pinsker’s who had researched Henry Spradley’s life. I watched his engaging video and read over the many blog entries he created. Next, I skimmed the encyclopedic entries about him on the House Divided page, gaining the valuable basic information about Spradley that I could use later (birth date, death date, birthplace, and so forth.) My goal from this secondary source research was to gather key terms or facts in order to use the Ancestry database as effectively as possible. So, armed with a master document of all the information I found, and most importantly, the primary sources these articles cited, I was ready for my next step.

One of the most impactful skills I learned using Ancestry was the art of narrowing my search requests down. Searching “Henry Spradley” without any supplementary information brought up thousands of results, so I became adept at plugging in the necessary supplements. From my secondary research, I knew he was formerly enslaved and born in Winchester City, Virginia, so at the suggestion of Professor Pinsker, I turned to the 1850 U.S Federal Census Slave Schedules. I tried every possible description of Spradley I could think of, typed in his birth year, and found… nothing. Without knowing where in Winchester City he had lived or what his “owner,” for lack of a better term, was named, the slave schedules were simply too vast for my research. The earliest documents were the Civil War-era registration records of Spradley entering the Union army on July 1st, 1863.

Registration document.
U.S Civil War Draft, Registrations Records, 1863-1865, Ancestry.

I may have had a rocky start, but this find propelled me forward. I immediately took notice of Spradley’s marital status – married. I knew Spradley had freed himself from slavery and escaped to Pennsylvania, thanks to the secondary sources, so that meant this “marriage” couldn’t have been legal. I tucked this thought away for research at a later date. 

Another point to mention is Henry’s decision to use the last name Williams instead. I attribute this difference to the same reason as found by previous researchers of Spradley, like Colin McFarlane. It appears to be a choice Henry made to identify with Williams during the war as he had just freed himself from slavery. After the war, he used Spradley. The change in middle names later in his life in student publications like The Dickinsonian and the Microcosm, I believe, can be explained by typos or misunderstandings.

Next, I found the Pennsylvania Civil War Muster Rolls, where more information about his unit could be found. I was on a search for his family, however, so I moved on from his time served. His household appeared in the 1870 Federal Census and provided me with the first glance at his children (Elizabeth, Alexander, William, and Shirley) and wife (Jemima).

Census record.
1870 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.

I took down the names and age estimates and began my family tree on a website called Family Echo

I jumped ahead to the 1880 Federal Census, where Spradley’s occupation was described as “laborer,” along with the first official mention of his son Shirley.

In an 1882 U.S City Directory, Henry Spradley’s address is listed as South College, and his job as “janitor.” He passed in 1897, as attested to by his death record. Satisfied with the overview I gained about Henry Spradley, I began what I can only call “the name game.”

U.S. City Directories 1882, Ancestry.

To find more about their children, I moved on to Spradley’s wife, Jemima. Quickly, I discovered there was a host of names she was identified by – Mina, Minie, and Jennie.  She was born around 1842, based on her age of 38 in the 1880 Federal Census.

Under the name Jennie in the 1900 United States Federal Census, I found her living with her then-married daughter, Elizabeth.  I was excited to find three obituaries, dating her death to be in 1904, which had been unmentioned by any previous research. Unfortunately, behind a paywall, I couldn’t get access to them. 

Census 1900.
1900 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.

Next, I focused heavily on Elizabeth Spradley and her spouse, Alexander Bowman. Elizabeth, following the legacy of her mother, appeared as both Elizabeth and Lizzie. She was born around 1858, according to her age of 12 in the 1870 Federal Census, and lived with her family during the 1880 Census. She married Alexander Bowman in 1894 while Alexander was working as a dairyman. No children appeared in the record as far as I could tell. Elizabeth worked as a laundress in 1900, while she lived with her husband and mother. Alexander, like the Spradley family, was from Virginia. In 1900, he worked as a day laborer.

In 1909, Elizabeth passed away, and from what I could understand of the cause of death, it may have been cancer in her uterus. If I had more time, I would try harder to understand this entry and consult other people’s opinions.


Death certificate.
Pennsylvania, Death Certificates, 1906-1967, Ancestry.

After her death, I found Alexander living with his sister in the 1910 United States Federal Census. In 1920, he lived as a boarder in a house full of mostly children.

Shirley, Elizabeth’s brother, was born in 1874, according to the 1880 census. In 1896, he married Jennie Caldwell (yes, just like Jemima “Jennie” Spradley). In the 1900 census, Shirley and Jennie’s children, Mary and Martha are mentioned. The family lived with Patsy Davis, Jennie’s grandmother, and Mary, Jennie’s mother.

In 1910, Jennie identifies herself as divorced from Shirley, as well as mentioning her son Reed. Shirley enlists in the U.S army in 1917, but continues to refer to Jennie as his wife.  In the 1920 census, Jennie and Shirley appear as still married. In 1928, Shirley passes. Jennie lives until 1937, working as a cook for 15 years in a hotel. 

1910 United States Federal Census, Ancestry.

These were all only names and numbers, but through them, I followed an extended family as they moved, changed jobs, married, divorced?, and died. I found myself smiling when I calculated the dates of all the family’s marriages. Jemima and Henry both barely survived long enough to see Shirley and Elizabeth marry their spouses.

Family tree.
Spradley Family Tree, Family Echo.

Lessons Learned and Loose Ends

Using the Ancestry database truly tested my ability to keep track of information effectively and efficiently to maximize my findings. Conflicting dates and names tripped me up, but by keeping detailed notes helped me power through. Though I was satisfied with the family tree I was able to construct, there remain some intriguing loose ends I hope to research in the future:

  • the life of Alexander Bowman, especially as related to Dickinson College
  • the remaining children of Henry and Jemima – William and Emma
  • the marriage of Jennie and Shirley Spradley