Wednesday, February 13, 2013

Lecture offers Insights into African Americans at Hopewell Furnace

There was a time when Hopewell Furnace in Elverson, PA employed large numbers of workers to chop wood, make charcoal, operate the furnace and undertake all the other tasks involved in 18th and 19th century iron production. More than 100 of those workers were African Americans about whom very little is known.

Frances Delmar, the National Park Service chief of education and interpretation at Hopewell Furnace National Historic Site, set out to learn more about them. She pored through historic daybooks, ledgers and other records from what was once one of the most important iron furnaces in America. The information she gathered is now the subject of The African American Experience at Hopewell Furnace, a slim, 24-page book that provides a glimpse into how these men and women lived.

On Feb. 12, Delmar spoke at a book signing attended by about 30 people at the Schuylkill River Heritage Area offices in Pottstown.

"For all the years that Hopewell was in operation, African Americans lived and worked at the furnace," she said. "Surprisingly, it seems institutional racism was absent from 19th century Hopewell Furnace."

Delmar speaks about her new book
Records indicate that while most African American workers held low paying jobs--as did the majority of Hopewell employees--some obtained higher ranking positions. What's more, records from the schoolhouse at Hopewell show that African Americans were taught alongside white children.

Delmar shared several anecdotes about interesting African American characters who she discovered in her research, and introduced the relative of Issac Cole, a former African American Hopewell employee.

The book sells for $5.95 and can be purchased from the Schuylkill River Heritage Area by calling 484-945-0200.