Gettysburg’s Black History Museum finds a new home

The Gettysburg Black History Museum started as an idea shared around an old kitchen table. 

It was at that table where Margaret Nutter told her daughters they needed to find a way to share the history of Gettysburg’s Black families.

Members of the Gettysburg Black History Museum board of directors, including Mary Alice Nutter, center, cut the ribbon at the museum's new location within Valentine Hall on the United Lutheran Seminary campus in Gettysburg. The museum is open by appointment only.

More than 25 years later, the museum has found a new home inside Valentine Hall on the United Lutheran Seminary campus. The kitchen table remains at the Nutters’ home in Gettysburg, but a photo of it is displayed in the museum so visitors can see where the idea was born.

Generations of storytellers

Jane Nutter, a fourth-generation Adams Countian and president of the museum’s board, is grateful that her mother, aunts and uncles were avid storytellers, and that she and her siblings listened.

“We were very fortunate growing up in our family because they talked about history,” she said.

The stories she heard from the adults in the family included those about her great-great-grandfather, Lloyd Watts, who came to Adams County in the 1840s and was a teacher at Gettysburg’s school for Black children. They heard about the local Black men who enlisted in the U.S. Colored Troops and fought in the Civil War, as well as local Black residents who were an integral part of the Underground Railroad and the Slave Refugee Society based at St. Paul’s AME Zion Church.

In the Black community, the oral tradition of sharing stories traces its roots back to Africa, Nutter said; today, storytelling in this fashion is not often seen as credible. Nutter was a curious child, and as she grew up she began to research the stories she heard about her family’s history, and found that “everything was true.”

“We want to talk about the many Black families that were here and what they contributed to Gettysburg,” she said. “It’s not Black history, it’s American history. Our goal is to share this American history just like Native American history should be shared, Hispanic history should be shared. It took all of us to make this country. It took all of us.”

Struggle, strife, support

Because Gettysburg was a segregated town for many years—Black people could not even be downtown after a certain hour of the day—the borough’s Third Ward became a self-contained community, Nutter said, with a Black Elks Lodge and three Black churches that were the “beacon” of the community.

“In the middle of all that struggle, strife…they still raised families, supported one another, had a community. They made a life here in Gettysburg,” Nutter said. “It wasn’t filled with vitriol or hatred, they loved Gettysburg. They were very proud of their work. They had pride in what they did and pride in who they were.”

Black History Museum’s visionary

The visionary behind the museum was Mary Alice Nutter, Jane’s older sister and the first Black teacher in Gettysburg’s integrated school system. When she retired from teaching in 2012, she began in earnest to develop the concept and support structure for the museum. When Mary Alice became ill, Jane took up the mantle to keep this “labor of love” moving forward. 

“She blazed the trail in many ways,” Nutter said of her sister. “God chose the right one. She was never afraid to stand when it was not comfortable. She will be the first to say she did not do it by herself,” crediting the museum’s dedicated volunteer board with helping make the dream a reality.

The museum’s exhibits feature the “colored” school that stood at the corner of Franklin and High streets in Gettysburg and closed in 1932; the family trees of some of the town’s original Black families; and Gettysburg’s Black veterans who served in the U.S. Colored Troops as well as in both World Wars and other conflicts.

Many of the historically Black buildings in town have since been razed, but they live on in the photos and stories on display in the museum. The documents, photos, journals, trunks and other family heirlooms were donated from Gettysburg’s Black families, and exhibits will evolve over time.

A fitting location

The museum board officially cut the ribbon on the Seminary location in August with Mary Alice in attendance. Dr. R. Guy Erwin, president of the United Lutheran Seminary, said the campus is proud to host the museum’s collection.

“The Seminary is happy to be able to share some of its space with a project as worthy as the Gettysburg Black History Museum,” he said. “It’s a collection very worth preserving, and we’re proud to be entrusted with it.”

The Seminary’s Gettysburg campus is a fitting place for the museum, as its founder, Samuel Simon Schmucker, was an avid abolitionist, Nutter said. However, the Seminary acknowledges its founder’s views do not exempt it from accountability.

“ULS is committed to full honesty about its own history, including its founding in an era when much American wealth was derived from the work of enslaved people,” Dr. Erwin said. “Just because we were founded by a clergyman with advanced abolitionist views doesn’t mean that we were somehow separate from the painful history of slavery, and not all Lutherans were as advanced in their views as our founder. Anything we can do to raise awareness of the legacy of slavery, I believe, is consonant with our mission as a Lutheran seminary.”

Jane Nutter points to an exhibit honoring her sister, Mary Alice, founder of the Gettysburg Black History Museum. Jane took on leadership of the museum project when Mary Alice became ill. [Ashley Andyshak Hayes]

Black History Museum’s goal is to inspire

Nutter hopes that sharing the history of Gettysburg’s Black families will inspire today’s young generation, just as hearing these stories did for her and her siblings.

“One of our hopes and desires is to…make sure that kids of color do not feel invisible,” she said. “They are a part of all of this. Their roots are deeply entrenched here.”

The museum is also a tribute to her mother and all those who kept their family histories alive through storytelling.

“We are standing on the shoulders of all these people here,” Nutter said, looking around the room at the collection of black-and-white family portraits. “They left a wonderful legacy for us here, for all of us, not just the Black folk, for all of us here in Gettysburg. That’s why it’s so important to share. I’m very proud of this, of what a grassroots organization can do.”

The Gettysburg Black History Museum is open by appointment only. To schedule a tour, visit www.gettysburgblackhistory.org and click “Contact Us.”

Featured image caption: Members of the Gettysburg Black History Museum board of directors, including Mary Alice Nutter, center, cut the ribbon at the museum’s new location within Valentine Hall on the United Lutheran Seminary campus in Gettysburg. The museum is open by appointment only. (Submitted Photo)

Read about the Adams County Historical Society’s new home
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Ashley Andyshak Hayes is a nonfiction writer based in Pennsylvania. She earned a B.A. in Communication from Messiah College and an M.A. in Writing from Johns Hopkins University. She has been a staff writer at the Gettysburg Times and the Frederick News-Post, and has contributed feature stories to the Gettysburg Companion, Frederick Magazine and Penn Lines.

She lives in Gettysburg with her husband, fellow writer Alex J. Hayes, and their two dogs, and is a member of Revolution Ice Unity, Central Pennsylvania’s only independent adult synchronized skating team.

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