History is the study of our past, a time that we cannot change but can learn from. Events that have tested this nation are sometimes overshadowed by times of success, but both are an important part of our past. History is more than a chronological listing of events. Just as in genealogy we cannot select our families; likewise we cannot be selective when studying our history. Genealogists who explore their past in the History Center’s Library & Archives occasionally learn that an ancestor owned slaves. Tax lists and census data identify those individuals that owned slaves, as they were considered property. In some cases, a researcher is surprised to learn that there were actually slaves north of the Mason Dixon line.
Pennsylvania passed the Gradual Abolition of Slavery Act in 1780. York County had free blacks as well as slaves well into the 1830s. York had its own Anti-Slavery Library as evidenced by the inscription inside the front cover of a book found in the Library & Archives Rare Book Room. The book was published by the American Anti-Slavery Society in 1838 in New York. Where was the library and who were its members? Perhaps Israel Laucks, a prominent York businessman and one of the organizers of York Safe and Lock, was a member. He owned a first edition copy of the two volume set, Uncle Tom’s Cabin. It is inscribed with his name and York, 1853 and is also found in the History Center collection. Laucks’ biography describes him as being public spirited and progressive in his attitude. Did he purchase it locally? Who else in York County may have owned a copy? On the other side of the coin, York County had its share of bounty hunters or slave catchers who earned a reward for returning runaways slaves. Others in the county chose not to get involved at all.
This symposium provides the opportunity to learn more about a dark side of our history: slavery and its impact locally. Part of our mission at the York County history Center is to discover York County’s history: the good, the bad and the ugly. It is through the History Center’s collections, exhibits and programs that we inspire the exploration of York County’s history. #YourHistoryStartsHere.