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A brief history of Black Lancaster, according to professor and historian Leroy Hopkins

Leroy Hopkins (Source: Provided)

Despite “not caring much for the history program” during his years as a Millersville University student, professor emeritus Leroy Hopkins has become one of the most prominent scholars of Lancaster County’s Black history.

Born in Lancaster city’s Seventh Ward and a 1961 graduate of J.C. McCaskey High School, Hopkins has been a Lancastrian for the majority of his life. His own history in Lancaster has allowed him to unearth many stories of Black Lancaster’s history, from Civil War-era demographic records to World War II stories passed down from his father. Many of these historical findings can be found in Hopkins’ numerous published books and articles.

In honor of Black History Month, One United Lancaster recently sat down with Hopkins to hear about his life, along with some of Lancaster’s Black history that he unearthed along the way.

Early years

Support from Hopkins’ family paved the way for the start of his career. Thanks to his mother’s workplace connection to Walter Blankenship, a Millersville University trustee, Hopkins was able to secure admission to the college. She also helped him secure one of his first jobs at Food Fair on Chestnut Street, a grocery store since bought out by Giant, which allowed him to pay his way through school.

The family’s physician, Dr. Edward Copper, took an interest in helping Hopkins pursue a college degree; paying for his first semester and buying him a new sweater.

At Millersville, Hopkins declared a double major in German and Russian. He said “a real turning point” in his education came when his German professor, Herr Richard Beam, encouraged him to apply for a yearlong study abroad program. Hopkins thought that he was unqualified and couldn’t afford to go, but the community “rallied for him” and raised $400 toward the $1,500 he needed. That sum, together with his own savings, allowed him to study in Germany in the early 1960s.

A photo of the 1963 Rocky Springs protest (Source: Lancaster History)

While in college, Hopkins attended a meeting of Programs for Cultural Enrichment (PACE) at McCaskey, where the group was discussing a Black history curriculum for the high school.

This was the first time that Hopkins was introduced to The Underground Railroad and its connection to Lancaster, as well as names of leaders like Fredrick Douglass and James Baldwin.

Hopkins and members of his family participated in some of the local and national Civil Rights actions that remain famous today. His mother and sister participated in The March on Washington and Hopkins walked in a protest of the segregated Rocky Springs pool.


After staying for a fifth year at Millersville to finish his Russian degree, Hopkins applied and was accepted to Middlebury College, Harvard and Yale for graduate school. He “took a big leap,” borrowed some money and went to Harvard for further education in German.

He began teaching during his second year at Harvard, first for undergraduate German students and later teaching 10 Special Forces Green Berets at Fort Devons in western Massachusetts.

Toward the end of his Ph.D. program, Hopkins was offered a traveling fellowship provided by the German Academic Exchange Service, so he finished his dissertation in Germany. He ended up living there for the better part of four years, teaching English to Germans and German to the Third Armored Division of the U.S. Army stationed in Frankfurt.

In 1976, Hopkins returned to Lancaster and became the Associate Director for Programming and Planning for the Urban League. In this role, he was in charge of creating programs around education, economic development, housing, health and social welfare.

Because he already knew southeast Lancaster and had the experience, it was easy for Hopkins to dive into research of the community.

Through Census data and the Urban League’s foundational documents, Hopkins discovered a dissertation written in 1964 by a graduate student named Walter Gershenfeld called “The Negro Labor Market in Lancaster, Pennsylvania.” It was financed by the Lancaster Chamber of Commerce.

Among other things, it tallied the rate of unemployment for chamber member companies. The majority White demographic clocked in at 1.1%, while the Black rate was 12.1%. The statistic inspired the Urban League to get into “the business of job creation,” he said.

The Black unemployment rate remains at 12.1%, said Hopkins, though the largest minority demographic in Lancaster is now Latino. He plans to revisit the dissertation alongside Gershenfeld’s son, Joel, who is associate dean at Brandeis University, and Lisa Lynch, who was the chief economist in the U.S. Department of Labor under President Bill Clinton.

Piecing together Lancaster’s history

Another thing that stuck out to Hopkins from Gershenfeld’s dissertation was the statement that the parents surveyed had higher expectations for their children than the children had for themselves. Hopkins surmised that this might be because the children didn’t feel like they “had a stake in their community.”

“That’s when I decided that to create that awareness of belonging, you need to have a history,” said Hopkins. He started with Terry Madonna, a former classmate and then a professor of history at Millersville, who told him more about the Christiana Riot in 1851.

From there, Hopkins obtained a copy of “A Chronicle of the Negro in America,” a book that went from 1619 until present day. He would regularly seek out “local attitudes” about national events cited in the book in the microfilm of Lancaster newspapers dating back to 1797.

During his tenure at Millersville in the early 1980s, Hopkins came across a document that he calls his “greatest discovery.” While reading “The Heritage of Lancaster,” by John Loose, he found mention of a law passed in 1820 that required “free persons of color” who were entering or leaving Lancaster to register themselves at the mayor’s office.

After acquiring a copy of the ordinance from his sister at the Lancaster County Archives, Hopkins went to learn more at the Lancaster County Historical Society, now called LancasterHistory. There he discovered that the original log book, with primary source information about 90% of Lancaster’s Black population in 1820, had recently been donated to the society.

Kept from 1820 to 1849, the book contains “information about Black people in Lancaster that you can’t find anywhere else,” said Hopkins. “It’s the basis for a social history.”

Loose was willing to Xerox the entry book for him, from which Hopkins transcribed and published the contents of the first recorded year. There are 243 people logged in this entry book, which is available to be read publicly at LancasterHistory.

Connections to Bethel AME

A good portion of Hopkins’ research has included his home church, Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church on Strawberry Street in Lancaster.

“Bethel has sort of been at the forefront of progressive movements,” Hopkins said. For example, in 1917, the Rev. Webster started Lancaster’s Negro Civic League, along with a day nursery for Black children in memory of his late wife.

The Civic League advocated for Black men to be allowed on the police force, Hopkins said.

Carrie Foster (Source: Provided)

It also increased Black property ownership and spurred the creation of the Hallie Hugh Brown Women’s Legislative Group, led by Carrie Foster, who used her job working in Lancaster city’s comfort stations to advocate for equal housing, recreation options and more.

The final president of the Negro Civic League was the choir master of the Bethel congregation, Abram Polite, whose descendants remain active in the southeast Lancaster community.

Polite helped found the Lancaster NAACP, which was organized at Bethel AME in June 1923. According to Hopkins, the Lancaster NAACP “didn’t really become a direct force in the community” until 1963, when the Rev. Alexander Stephens arrived and helped to orchestrate the Rocky Springs protest that Hopkins participated in. That protest “broke the ice locally” on Civil Rights activism, he said.

In the Civil War era, Bethel AME served an important role on the Underground Railroad. The congregation offers a dramatization called “Living the Experience,” which details events like the Christiana Riot from the perspective of people who lived through it.

A local plaque explains the role of Robert Boston, a Black barber, in helping local abolitionists keep escapees on the Underground Railroad from being captured. Boston went on to become a pastor. In 1870, when the 15th Amendment was passed granting African American men the right to vote, he led a march from Bethel through town to the Musser Mansion in celebration at the request of the Equal Rights League.

He proposed an unsuccessful resolution, in August of that year, that Black men should vote for the Republican party if the party served them in protest of President Andrew Johnson.

Click to enlarge. (Source: Historical Marker Database)

Connecting the past to the present

When thinking about Black History Month, it’s “important to remember the struggle that is still going on,” Hopkins said. “There are local histories that still need to be discovered and appreciated.”

For example, Hopkins believes that “every schoolkid in Lancaster County” should know about William Whiffer and Steven Smith, who were wealthy local entrepreneurs and philanthropists who helped fugitives escape slavery.

Smith, in particular, was remarkable: He was a former indentured servant who bought his and his wife’s freedom and bought the lumber yard that he managed, which was turning annual profits of $50,000 in the 1850s under his supervision.

“Black history is American history,” said Hopkins. “And when you suppress part of your population, you’re actually hurting the whole population. That’s the lesson to be learned from Black History Month: Perseverance and resilience.”