Group to focus on area's rich black history

January 13, 2003|by STACEY DANZUSO

The dedication of a historical marker highlighting Franklin County's role in the Civil War-era Underground Railroad will be the inaugural event for a new organization devoted to promoting the area's rich black history.

Wednesday's ceremony has a dual purpose: To introduce the Waters Institute for African-American History Inc. to the community and to unveil the historical marker that will be placed on Memorial Square in Chambersburg, said the Rev. Bill Harter, a board member.

"This is a major event. It is very exciting that the Waters Institute is up and running," he said.

Local historian James Wolfson was key in getting the institute off the ground and spent more than two years working on the request to the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission for the marker.


"The Underground Railroad is in my view one of the great triumphs of the human spirit in American history," Harter said. "The opposition to slavery and determination to see slavery ended and justice done was something shared by African-Americans and whites alike."

The institute is named in honor of the late Donald "Mike" Waters, who community leaders say worked continuously to bring all races together.

Harter said his own involvement in the institute came from his relationship with Waters.

"He was a legendary person as far as what he contributed to the community. I became aware of the enormously rich history of the African-American communities in Franklin County, which go back at least eight generations, through him," he said.

Efforts for the institute really got under way last summer.

"Basically what happened was a couple of people got together to find a project that would be a community-building effort and result in better relationships between all groups in Chambersburg," Wolfson said.

The institute board is working to acquire a site in downtown Chambersburg to house the historical information collected and serve as a museum and research and genealogy center. The focus will be the preservation and study of black historical materials, especially those pertaining to Franklin County and the Underground Railroad.

Wolfson's application for the historical marker became the first project for the group.

"We wanted something that would give it a spark," he said. "We hope to bring people together in a couple of ways. First would be through education."

The second way is through heritage tourism - bringing people to Chambersburg to research and better understand their own backgrounds.

The organization will continue its research, and Wolfson has outlined 98 projects already.

"But we have enough right now to have the museum up and running," he said. "This is only the beginning.

"Hopefully people will learn from example of the Underground Railroad. White people helping black people, black people helping black people who were strangers," Wolfson said. "Hopefully people will learn to be a little more tolerant of each other, especially if we can get the message to children."

Wednesday's dedication ceremony will be at noon at Central Presbyterian Church on the square in Chambersburg.

For more information, or to volunteer, call Wolfson at 717-263-0531, or visit the institute's Web site at

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