Berks County’s African American Historians - Woven With Words
David Mory, Lauren Balogh, and others contributed to this article
Frank Gilyard, Historian
In Berks County, there is no one person who has documented African American history of the region more than Frank Gilyard. Gilyard has collected information from hundreds of years through stories, artifacts, and personal experience. With his collection of newspaper clippings, historical memorabilia, and photos, Gilyard created the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum on 10th Street in Reading, PA.
Frank Gilyard was born April 3, 1930 at Reading Hospital to Mary (Wise) Gilyard and William C. Gilyard. He was the fourth of five children in the family.
Gilyard received all of his primary and secondary education in the city of Reading. After graduating from Northwest Junior High School, he attended Reading Standard Evening High School, where he was the class president. Upon his graduation in 1946, Gilyard received the Marion I. Knoll Award for service rendered to his classmates. Service played a large role in Frank Gilyard’s life then, and it has continued throughout his life.
After a brief stint in the U.S. Army Air Force, Gilyard continued to serve his country in the reserves until the Korean War broke out in the early 1950s.
In 1952, Frank Gilyard began work as a lab assistant at Saint Joseph’s Hospital in Reading. He was the first African American hired at the hospital, and encountered much racial prejudice as a result. In his four years working in the lab and the morgue at Saint Joseph’s, Gilyard was not allowed to eat lunch with his fellow lab technicians and endured frequent racial slurs and name calling.
Upon leaving St. Joseph’s Hospital, Gilyard began work at two jobs in Reading. He worked as an orderly in Reading Hospital while also working at Bellvue Surgical Company. In late 1959, Gilyard left Reading and moved to Cleveland, Ohio. He took a job at Highland View Hospital, where he worked in both the Infection Control Lab and the Microbacteriology Department. While he was working at Highland View, he attended Finn College to earn his certification as a medical lab technician.
In August 1964, when Gilyard’s young children were nearing school age, he made the decision to move back to Berks County. Gilyard knew that he wanted his children educated in Berks County’s reputable school system, so he moved his family to Muhlenberg, a suburb of Reading. After returning from Cleveland, Gilyard briefly worked at the American coloring company as a chemist. He then transferred to the Wernersville State Hospital, where he stayed for the better part of fifteen years as a medical lab technician.
It was during his time working at Wernersville State Hospital that Gilyard had his most violent encounter with racism. In June of 1979, Frank Gilyard, his wife Mildred, and their five children moved into the home they were building in Muhlenberg Township. A few months later, in September of 1977, the house was firebombed in the middle of the night. Gilyard and his family escaped, but this shocking act of racism put the family at great risk. “It happened not in Mississippi, not in Alabama, but in Berks County where I grew up,” stated Gilyard.
In 1979, Gilyard transferred to Saint Joseph’s Hospital, the place where he began his career and encountered much racism so many years before. He continued to work there as a medical lab technician until his retirement from the medical profession in 1992.
Gilyard has done anything but slow down since he left St. Joseph’s Hospital over a decade ago. In addition to spending time with his five children, fifteen grandchildren, and two great-grandchildren, Gilyard has remained a faithful servant of the community. He has involved himself in missionary work both locally and overseas, and has managed to take his love of collecting African American artifacts to the next level.
The Central PA African Museum houses much of the personal collection of Gilyard, but it also serves another purpose. The Museum is housed in the old Mt. Bethel AME Church, which was formed by African Americans in the early 1800s as an alternative to another African American church that was located nearby. The church was a stop on the underground railroad and included a pit to hide runaway slaves. This important piece of history is displayed at the Museum, which is now part of the Pennsylvania Historical Society.
Through the work of Gilyard and other local community members, the building also houses a community school for pre-school children in head start. With the help of Representative Thomas Caltagirone of Berks County, a funding request has been made to Governor Ed Rendell to allow for the creation of an African American community center at the site of the current museum and a few run down homes that surround the building. This new center would house the NACCP Reading Chapter, Berks County Head Start classes, and the museum. The church would be attached to preserve history. The funding request was written in late October 2005 and Representative Caltagirone and Gilyard are waiting for the decision.
Richard G. Johnson, Historian
Richard G. Johnson, a graduate of Albright College and former teacher at Boyertown High School, is a prolific and respected local historian. His writings include “Slaves and Indentured Servants in Berks County Before 1800” (1972), “The Founding of Reading’s Bethel AME Church” (1980), and, with Susan B. Hartman, “Restoration of Bethel: An Example for the Future” (1980). He also has a book, They All Stand Fair: A Social History of Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, Reading, PA 1834-1859 (1980), which provides a thorough history of the Bethel AME church in Reading and also gives insights about the early history of Reading.
Johnson’s “Black in Berks” project, researched and written between 1970 and 1972, was likely the first effort to document in broad scope the history of African Americans in Berks. The “Black in Berks” manuscript is available at the Historical Society of Berks County.