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Did You Know? - Woven With Words



  • Ralph Mickey, the only African American driver in the history of the Reading Fire Department, was born into slavery on March 19, 1841, in Louisa County, Virginia. As a teenager, Mickey escaped to Reading, and on July 1, 1864, he enlisted as a member of Company L, 5th Regiment, Massachusetts Cavalry, and fought in the Civil War. After his discharge on October 31, 1865, in Clarksville, Texas, Mickey returned to Reading. He was first hired by the Liberty Fire Co. as driver-stable master in the 1870s and later drove for the Washington Fire Company, the Reading Hose Company, and the Junior Fire Co. Mickey was known for his driving record and his horse-handling skills. After his retirement in 1913, Mickey walked every day from his home at 132 N. 7th St to the Junior Fire Company at Vine and Walnut to stay in touch with the other firefighters (Miccicke 2000)


  • Jack Frye, a member of the Negro League’s Monrovia Base Ball Club in Harrisburg in the 1860s, went on to play professionally for a Reading club in 1883. This team, the Reading Actives, was part of the unaffiliated Interstate Association (“League Histories;” see also White 1907, 1995). According to Calobe Jackson, Jr., Frye only played in a few games for Reading. An article in the Reading Eagle on September 16, 1883, describing the game between the Reading Actives and the Lancaster Ironsides the day before, states, “Fry[e], the colored catcher...supported Landis [the pitcher] very well. A colored player on the field was quite an oddity, and Fry[e]’s running, together with his various tricks in going around the bases, occasioned quite a laugh.”

Frye was the fourth African American to play in the major or minor league (Jackson, Jr. 2005). Along with Clarence Williams from Harrisburg, Frye played with Black baseball’s first professional team, the Cuban Giants (Knorr and Jackson, Jr. 2005). The Giants were Colored champs in 1887 and 1888, and in June 1887 they beat big-league teams in Cincinnati and Indianapolis (“Cuban Giants” 2005).


  • Jim Malson, “one of the leading colored [baseball] players in Pennsylvania” (“Saw More”) in the late 1800s,  was a well known veteran ground keeper of Reading Ball Park from approximately 1888 through at least 1905. Between 1888 and 1905, he never missed a game. Malson was considered one of the best ground keepers, and had many offers from out of town clubs but refused them all (“Saw More”).


  • Robert J. Nelson, born in Reading, PA, on May 20, 1873, son of Levi and Harriet Matilda (Clark) Nelson, married Mary Elizabeth Roberts on June 26, 1902; they had two children: Harriet Elizabeth in 1903 and Robert Clark in 1904. Among his many accomplishments, Nelson was editor and publisher of the Wilmington Advocate from 1920 to1925, and managing editor of The Washington Eagle (Yenser 1927, 1933; 317). He was one of the founders of the NAACP in Harrisburg, the secretary of the National Republican Campaign during Harding’s 1920 campaign, an appointed member of the Pennsylvania Athletic Commission (by Gov. Pinchot in 1932), and the executive director of the Elks’ Committee on Civil Liberties. Nelson married Alice Dunbar, widow of poet Paul Lawrence Dunbar, in 1916. They published a newspaper and several books together.


  • The Negro Handbook (1947) reports on the National CIO Committee to Abolish Racial Discrimination’s creation of an educational program to build a labor movement “based on human freedom and dignity, regardless of race, color, creed, or sex.” Berks County is only one of nine local industrial union councils nationwide with an antidiscrimination committee ( Murray 1947, 116).


  • Marguerit Brown-Simkins (formerly Margeurit Davies), a Reading native, achieved the International Foundation for Performing and Creative Arts Lifetime Achievement Award for Distinguished Service. Brown-Simkins attended Reading High School, where she sang in the a cappella choir. After moving to New York City, Brown Simkins sang professionally with the Harlem Chorale, part of the Symphony of the New World, and performed at Lincoln Center in 1972.


  • The local chapter of the Masons, Victor Lodge 73, the Prince Hall Grand Lodge of Free and Accepted Masons, was founded in 1892 to promote civil rights. Its sister organization, Sarah Jackson Chapter 74, Order of the Eastern Star, was founded in 1926. Both are still active in Berks (Amprey 1993).


  • On the website Pennsylvania Poorhouse History by County, Guy Bierman explains that:

“Alms House, aka the Poor house, was established 1824 in Cumru Township. From within Cumru Township, in 1908 the borough of Shillington was incorporated. Most, maybe all, of the Alms house found itself within the Shillington borough limits. So there were not two houses, just the usual shifting of government boundaries. Today, much of the land of the Alms house was taken by the Governor Mifflin School District.”


  • The Afrolumens Project has documented forty-three deaths and eight births of African Americans living at the Poor House between 1825 and 1857. Those eight births included Catharine Beckerman, Eliza Jennings, Mary Ann Hamilton, Martha Jackson, Mary Thorn, Mary Holland, and Julia Baker (Nagle, “Records”).


  • On November 14, 1865, Aaron L.L. Still, Richard Ball, Henry B. Fry, and George Fry, all of Reading, were on the Committee of Arrangements for a Complimentary Reception, a Free Dinner and an Oration of Welcome in the city of Harrisburg. The celebration, to honor “our brave Colored Soldiers,” was advertised in the Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, Nov. 1, 1865:


“The colored people of Pennsylvania, either as organizations or as individuals, are invited to be present. Colored Men of Pennsylvania, crowd Harrisburg, and give your brothers in blue a thrilling welcome. Come up from cities and towns, from hillsides and dales, from mountain fastencases and valley retreats out of respect to the memory of our lamented dead, and in recognition of the services of the heroic living, in such swelling columns as will kindle a blaze of enthusiasm in the old Capital, whose thundering echoes will be heard all over the State, radiating the undying record of colored Soldiers with such luster of glory, as will quicken our greatest enemies to do us justice. Excursion tickets to Harrisburg at one-half the usual rates, will be issued on the 13th and 14th of November, from all the stations on the Pennsylvania Central, the principal ones on the Philadelphia and Reading and the Northern Central railroads, good until the 20th. Excursion tickets on the Cumberland Valley will be issued on the 13th, good until the 16th inclusive” (Scott 2001).


  • Current Governor Edward G. Rendell was a keynote speaker at the 14th Annual Reading NAACP Freedom Fund Banquet in 2001.


  • A two-day state conference on African American history, “African American Arts & Culture in Pennsylvania,” was held in Reading in 1996.


  • On July 20, 2000, Bonnie Jouhari of the Reading-Berks Human Relations Council and her teenage daughter were awarded over 1.1 million dollars by a federal administrative judge after neo-Nazi Ryan Wilson made threats toward Jouhari, a former fair housing activist in Reading, and her teenage daughter on his website. Jouhari’s job had included helping victims of housing discrimination in Berks County file complaints with the Housing and Urban Development department; she also chaired and founded the Berks County Hate Crimes Task Force.  Wilson’s website showed a picture of Jouhari, who is white, with a caption deeming her a race traitor and stating that she should be hung.  In addition he made threats against Jouhari’s daughter, who is bi-racial.  In addition to the award, Wilson was prohibited from publishing, posting, or distributing any pictures or references of Jouhari and her daughter. He also cannot retaliate against anyone associated with the case. Wilson’s website has since been removed due to a Pennsylvania State court order.


  • William H. Perry, a resident of Reading who turned 105 years old in 2005, grew up on his father’s South Carolina dairy farm.  He tried to enlist in the Army during World War I, but was unsuccessful because the Army had filled its quota of African Americans.  Perry was employed for forty-eight years at Carpenter Technology, retiring as a foreman (Urban 2005).


  • The first African American performer with the Ringling Brothers, Barnum and Bailey Circus was trapeze artist Zarinah Felton, a native of Reading.


  • Clifton Davis, star of the former TV sitcom “A-Men,” graduated from the Pine Forge Academy in eastern Berks.


  • Antonio Burgess, a senior at Exeter High School, is included in the 37th edition of Who’s Who Among American High School Students, an honor given to students who are in the top 5% of students in academic achievement.


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