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Gettysburg Licensed Town Guides offers tours of Gettysburg’s rich African American history this weekend

In honor of Martin Luther King Weekend, the Gettysburg Licensed Town Guides are offering one-hour walking tours of Gettysburg’s rich African American history.

The tours are on Saturday, Sunday, and Monday at 11:00 a.m. and 1:00 p.m.

“Here are some of the site that may be included in the tour:

We know little about Rev. Alexander Dobbins, but we do know he owned two slaves. Next time you visit the Dobbins House, give homage to those men who built the large home without compensation for their work.

James Gettys, the “father” of Gettysburg, also owned a slave– Sidney O’Brien. She was freed after Gettys died in the early 1800’s. Her home in Gettysburg is gone and Franklin Street probably runs over the site of it. 

During the time of the Civil War, Basil Biggs was considered to be the wealthiest African American in Gettysburg. He was a teamster, a veterinarian, and he played a major in interring the dead Union soldiers to be reburied in the National Cemetery. You can see his house at 155 S. Washington Street. 

Half a block south of the Biggs’ house is the Jack Hopkins house (219 S. Washington Street). Jack was a very popular janitor at Pennsylvania (Gettysburg) College, who may have also taken an active role in the Underground Railroad. Confederate soldiers ransacked the home during their stay in Gettysburg.

Born into slavery in Maryland, Owen Robinson was freed and moved to Gettysburg, where he owned a store that sold candy and oysters. His house still stands at 124 W. High Street. The parking lot next to his home once was the site of his store.

The home of Lloyd Watts, who fought in the Civil War and later became an educator, no longer stands, but a visit to the Lincoln Cemetery (on Long Lane) carries his legacy, as he helped create it in 1867.

Mag Palm worked as a domestic in Gettysburg prior to the Civil War. Her story tells of the dangers of being a Black Gettysburg resident during this period. Slave catchers from Maryland routinely visited the town and one day in 1858, Mag was returning home after a long day’s work when three men attempted a kidnapping to take her back into Maryland. They failed and we now know how dangerous Gettysburg could be to people of color. The alley where she beat off her attackers is between the King James Gallery and the Christmas Haus.

We know little about Aunt Liz, but legend has it that she was unable to escape from the Rebels who came into town, so she hid in the Christ Lutheran Church cupola. 

Daniel Alexander Payne was the most highly educated of the group. Progressive Rev. Samuel Schmucker believed in equality for all and accepted African Americans into his Seminary on Seminary Ridge. Payne was his first student and went on to a noteworthy career, including founding Wilberforce University in Ohio. His plaque can be found next to 239 N. Washington Street.

Finally, William Johnson never lived in Gettysburg, but he played an important role in Lincoln’s visit. Johnson was a barber who because a friend of Lincoln as he rode the circuit as an attorney. Once elected to the Presidency, Lincoln invited Johnson to come to Washington to work for him. He accompanied Lincoln to Gettysburg and stayed with him in David Wills’ second floor bedroom. As a result, he was probably to first to hear the immortal Gettysburg Address. When you look up at the window from Lincoln Square, imagine not only Lincoln there, but his good friend and aide, William Johnson.

There are many more African Americans who helped shape Gettysburg’s history, and I encourage you to read James M. Paradis’ “African Americans and the Gettysburg Campaign.” I hope you will walk the streets of Gettysburg and visit these sites, or better yet, book a Black History Tour from the Gettysburg Licensed Town Guides.

Join the tour by calling calling (717) 253-5737 or by email at tours@gbltg.com.

The rates are $15 per person, but children under 8 are free.

Reservations must be made at least an hour before the scheduled tour.

Featured Image Caption: Rev. Daniel Alexander Payne [Library of Congress]

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Dr. Brad Gottfried is the author of 16 Civil War books, including "Lincoln Comes to Gettysburg: The Creation of the Soldiers’ National Cemetery and Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address" (2021), which he co-wrote with his wife, Linda. He is also a Gettysburg Licensed Town Guide.

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  • This is a terrific account. I’ve shared it with my children so they can understand their town and it’s history better.

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