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William Howard Day, Unsung Abolitionist

Written by Cary Burkett, Arts & Culture Desk and witf Host | Feb 5, 2015 2:35 PM

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William Howard Day

The William Howard Day Cemetery on Lincoln Street in Steelton, PA is a short distance from the Bass Pro Shop at the Harrisburg Mall. The 43-acre cemetery opened in 1940 to serve the needs of the African-American community in Harrisburg.

The William Howard Day Homes are apartments at Community Drive, Reilly Road and Herr Streets in Harrisburg.

Both the homes and the cemetery were named in honor of the first African-American to serve on the Harrisburg City School Board. He served as president of that board from 1891-1893, the first African-American president of any school board in the nation.

The name of William Howard Day is not as well-known as Frederick Douglas or Harriet Tubman, although he worked with both of those famous abolitionists in the mid-1800's.

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Todd Mealy

Todd Mealy teaches Modern American History at Penn Manor High School, and felt that Day's story needed to be told.  Mealy is the author of Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day, 1825-1900.

Day was born in New York City in 1825. His mother, Eliza, was a runaway slave. It's not known if his father was as well, but both were living free in New York when he was born.  His father died in an accident at the New York Harbor when Day was 3.

"His mother made the courageous decision," says Mealy, "to give him up for adoption to a white family from Northampton, Massachusetts. You have to picture, it's the 1830's. She wanted him to be safe, not be kidnapped, and make sure that he got an education."

Day received a Bachelor's and Master's degree from Oberlin College in Ohio. Later he would attain a Doctorate of Divinity degree from Livingstone College. He became heavily involved in the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves flee to Canada. For a time he lived in Canada, working in refugee slave settlements and publishing a newspaper. He also visited Great Britain, Ireland and Scotland, raising money for the cause.

After his return to the states he became a lecturer and one of the leading advocates for the Equal Rights Movement, helping to found the Equal Rights League which became the predecessor for the NAACP.

He eventually settled in Harrisburg and became the first African-American employed by the Commonwealth. Shortly thereafter he joined the Harrisburg School Board, and later became president.

Todd Mealy hopes that his biography can help illuminate some of the contributions Day made to the cause of equal rights. Mealy will be giving a lecture on William Howard Day for the Historical Society of Dauphin County on Sunday afternoon, February 8 at 2:30 at the Harris-Cameron Mansion, 219 South Front Street in Harrisburg.

Todd Mealy has also written Biography of an Antislavery City: Antislavery Advocates, Abolitionists, and Underground Railroad Activists in Harrisburg, PA, and most recently Legendary Locals of Harrisburg.  

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