African Americans of Western Berks County - Woven With Words
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The iron industry in Robesonia began in 1749 with the Tulpehocken Eisenhammer, which was purchased in 1763 by Henry William Stiegel and renamed Charming Forge. Stiegel sold Charming Forge to his nephew, George Ege, in 1772. The first records of African Americans in Berks are from the Forge.
In 1763, “a Negro, Cyrus, worth 80 pounds” is listed as one of Stiegel’s assets, and the Charming Forge ledgers of 1764, 1765, and 1766 list the name “Negro Sambo.” The ledgers also list a slave named Philip, who belonged to George Ege; he is also recorded in the Berks County Record of Slaves (Johnson 1972, II: 2-3).
The church record book from St. Daniel’s Lutheran Church lists under the baptismal entries the names of the four children of “Philip, a negro,” including Henry, Elizabeth, Philippine, and Philip. The church records also include: “Syble (a Negress)” and “SAMUEL, born Dec. 12, 1799; sponsor was a Thomas Warth (Ward).” The church record states that “[o]n May 13, 1790, the child of a colored person was baptized, but I do not know who the father is. The sponsor was Jacob Lide, a colored person” (Johnson 1972, II: 2-4).
According to Richard G. Johnson, African Americans first came to Robesonia after being purchased on the open market or traded among ironmasters (1972, II: 5). The following letter in the Historical Society of Berks County is from William Gwynn of the Mary Ann Furnace, and dated April 7, 1779:
To George Ede
I send you Ben...you need not count on getting Dick’s Negro as they are determined not to part with him... (1972, II: 6)
The Carter Family
Johnny “Pappy” Walker, who died at the age of eighty-one in 1929, migrated from the South in the early twentieth century to work at the Robesonia Furnace. He is remembered as a great storyteller, and some of his best stories were of the ending of the Civil War and the signing of the Emancipation Proclamation. The James Carter family (Carter was one of Pappy’s grandsons), who lived west of Womelsdorf, was “the last and only black family living in that part of the county.” (1972, II: 1-2, 10-11). James Carter’s widow currently lives in Sinking Spring.
Aaron Carter, one of James’ brothers, was an outstanding athlete at Robesonia High School, and in 1940, Samuel Carter, another brother, was the last African American graduate of Robesonia High School before it merged with Womelsdorf and Wernersville High Schools to become Conrad Weiser High School in 1955 (1972, II: 11).
The Umbles Family
Floyd Umbles was a grandson of Johnny “Pappy” Walker. He grew up in Robesonia, the son of Warrick and Edmona (Walker) Umbles, and died in 1992. According to Umbles, who gave his family record to the Central Pennsylvania African American Museum, thirty-four African American families, including the Walkers, Jacksons, Robertses, Carters, and Paynes, among others, lived in Robesonia between 1910 and 1935. Nineteen students from these families graduated from Robesonia High School, including Umbles, who graduated in 1923.
Floyd Umbles played four years of varsity basketball and track and field. From 1921 to 1923, Umbles, his sister Sadie, and Anna and Ruth Carter won the County Choral Singing for high schools. Umbles and his father were employed at the Robesonia Furnace. Along with his family, Floyd Umbles was named an honored member of the Reading and Berks Basketball Oldtimers, Inc., in 1983. He was also given the Living Treasure Award by the Friends of the Robesonia Furnace, Inc., in 1993.
Umbles worked ten-hour days for twenty-five cents an hour in 1917. Even after graduation from high school he continued to work as a roaster and in the cast house. Umbles moved with his family to Canton, Ohio, in 1925. He moved back to Berks County after retiring in 1972. His first wife, Edna L. (Edwards) Umbles, died in 1970. His second wife, Esther S. (Hurdle) Umbles, died in 1988.
Floyd Umbles’s nephew, Alan Page, is a former defensive player for the Minnesota Vikings NFL team. After retiring, Page became the first African American Supreme Court Justice in Minnesota.