Some try to preserve Claysburg’s vanishing black history

CLAYSBURG – Walking through Claysburg today, it’s difficult to imagine the town as it once was: a busy center of central Pennsylvania’s black community, rows of wooden houses surrounding churches and shops in neighborhoods with names like “Little Africa.”

In the 1920s, Claysburg tax rolls counted more than 150 black residents, most of them migrants from the South who found work in the town’s silica brick plants.

Today, almost none of their original houses remain standing. Their church was sold to another congregation, then bulldozed and turned into a parking lot.

The 2010 census counted just seven African-American residents in a population of 1,625.

“The older people are starting to pass,” said Bill Sweet, raised in Claysburg and now vice president of the Blair County chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. “And the memory’s starting to pass with them.”

Most of Claysburg’s black population came and went in a matter of 50 years, according to longtime residents and historical studies.

With the decline of the silica brick industry – which sustained western Pennsylvania’s steel power, often at the expense of workers’ health – the community scattered to other cities.

And while similar towns, like Mount Union in Huntingdon County, have retained a close-knit black population in the years since, little remains in Claysburg beyond written records, old photographs and a small cemetery.

The Great Migration

The first black workers traveled to Claysburg from the Jim Crow South in the second decade of the 20th century, as the construction of a silica brickyard transformed the rural village into a growing factory town. Working for Standard Refractories and later General Refractories, they turned quarried stone into high-temperature bricks to line steel furnaces.

“Eventually, they went out and recruited more people,” said Rich Allison, a Claysburg historian who worked as General Refractories president in the 1980s.

Company managers traveled the South, stopping to recruit in the towns their employees hailed from, he said.

Black workers were taken by the trainload to Claysburg from Little Rock, Ark., during World War I, according to a study by the Department of the Interior. Many would remain for decades.

It was the first Great Migration, a cultural wave that, by 1930, brought more than a million black Southerners to industrial cities and towns in the North. Seeking refuge from limited job opportunities and institutionalized racism, many worked alongside recent European immigrants in factories across Pennsylvania.

In Claysburg, the waves of Southern workers made homes of small wooden company houses, built en masse to hold the town’s surging population. Others lived in small, ethnically divided neighborhoods that sprang up around the brickyards.

“Little Africa” and “Shanty Row” were the black neighborhoods, Allison said – sitting in areas now occupied by empty lots and new houses along Dunnings Highway and Bedford Street. In the 1920s, families there shopped at their own markets and prayed at their own churches but sent their children to an integrated high school, records from the time show.

A 1924 photograph shows a young Fred Gaston – listed in contemporary articles as the descendant of early migrant John Gaston – sitting among white classmates with familiar names like Knisely, Lingenfelter and Hileman.

“There wasn’t that sense of segregation that other towns had,” Allison said. “Of course, they had their own church, just like every ethnic group … and every ethnic group had its own store.”

The town’s black neighborhoods even sported their own baseball team: The “Claysburg Colored Giants” – distinct from a Claysburg team apparently limited to white players – took on local clubs, black and white, throughout the 1920s in a Blair-to-Bedford twilight league.

“Gaston chucked for Claysburg and starred on the peak and with the bat,” a 1922 Altoona Mirror story announced after a win over Bedford’s black club. He was among several local baseball stars to emerge from the town.

“They could have made it to the major leagues if it wasn’t for the prejudice,” said Blair County NAACP President Don Witherspoon, who grew up in a black neighborhood abutting a silica slag dump.

Made up of crowded one-story homes heated by stoves and lacking showers, Witherspoon’s neighborhood surrounded a boarding house for recent migrants from South Carolina’s cotton and tobacco country.

“Everybody had a garden. … We had our own hogs, our own goats. We went fishing, we went hunting,” said Robert Kimbrough, 73, of Jacksonville, N.C., who grew up in the same neighborhood. “Life in the country was great.”

‘You wouldn’t recognize them’

But the community couldn’t grow forever, and signs of trouble emerged even in its early years. The Great Depression devastated demand for Claysburg’s silica bricks, Allison said, and many of the Southern workers returned home, jobless.

Some would return during World War II, however, as the American war industry’s insatiable need for steel and supplies drew thousands more to the North.

It was then that the brick plant’s hundreds of workers, black and white together, organized their first labor union. They joined the United Construction Workers in 1944, then the United Mine Workers and finally the United Steel Workers decades later.

“It was strictly one union. The African-Americans were part of the same bargaining unit as the others,” Allison said.

A union couldn’t stop the industry’s technological shift, though, and by the 1950s, hiring had stalled. Hundreds were laid off amid a steel strike, news reports said, and most of the Little Rock transplants left the area.

“If you were Afro-American, you were gone by the wayside,” Kimbrough said. “No ifs, ands or buts about it.”

Many workers transferred to New Jersey, where the silica industry survived, Witherspoon said. Some moved to Altoona and Mount Union.

Allison recalled the lingering widows and families who stayed in old company houses, many unwilling or unable to pay rent as the brickyards emptied. One widow, living in the once-thriving black neighborhoods, insisted on walking across town each month to pay her $12 rent and 75 cent water bill, he said.

Shanty Row was demolished house by house as each family left, and Little Africa’s population dwindled as the years passed.

The Ebenezer Baptist Church – black Claysburg’s spiritual center since 1920 – closed in the early 1960s, left to another congregation until Greenfield Township bought and demolished it several years ago. Today, a parking lot for the community park covers the church site.

A second, smaller church closed, as well. Two lingering Shanty Row houses were loaded onto trucks and shipped to Imler, Sweet said.

“You wouldn’t recognize them anymore,” he said.

Starting to remember

Today, Claybsurg’s historic black cemetery is the only remaining physical sign of the community’s existence. Members of the town’s black diaspora visit occasionally, Kimbrough said, and some return for an annual summer church picnic.

One of its last early residents – one who had long since moved away – was buried at the cemetery in September, Sweet said.

“That was her wish: to be buried there,” he said.

For those living in Claysburg now, the story of their black population remains murky. It’s taught in a history class at Claysburg-Kimmel, Superintendent Royce Boyd said, but only through local historians’ efforts have documents and photographs been collected.

“Through the generations, it’s been less and less,” Boyd said. “But there are some people that are starting to learn and remember.”

Mirror Staff Writer Ryan Brown is at 946-7457.