One hundred and fifty-one years ago, the Battle of Gettysburg raged-on into the second of three bloody days. By the end of its third day, 45,515 soldiers would be dead, wounded or missing.
For most historians Gettysburg marks the turning point of the war. For most Americans it symbolizes the beginning of the end of prejudice in the United States. When the Confederates crossed the Mason-Dixon line and battled the Union forces in Pennsylvania, it seemed an affront to freedom loving northerners who considered themselves so much more civilized than their slave-holding neighbors to the south. Ironically, many northerners like James Gettys, the founder of Gettysburg, owned slaves. Poetically, the grandson of one of Gettys' slaves, fought in the civil war.
Samuel Stanton's grandmom, Sidney O'Brien, was owned by James Gettys. Stanton -- arguably not a fan of slavery -- was born August 18, 1836, in Gettysburg. Stanton had light skin and straight hair. These Caucasian features allowed him to travel to New Hampshire and enlist on April 1, 1863, in the U.S. Navy. Upon completion of his tour of duty, Stanton assumed the alias, Samuel Johnson, and -- according to military service records -- "enlisted in Company K of the 3rd United States Colored Troops in Pittsburgh on September 9, 1864."
In 1780 Pennsylvania mandated the "gradual emancipation" of enslaved persons allowing that no baby born after the act went into effect could be enslaved, but "Even those born a few days before the passage of the act had to wait 28 years before the law set them free." Stanton's mom, Gettys Ann O'Brien, was born a free woman after that date.
When James Gettys died in 1815, he left his estate -- including his human chattel -- to his wife and two sons. In Gettys' will after commending his "immortal Soul into the hands of God who gave it" and requesting that he be "buried in a decent and Christianlike manner" left his "estate wherewith it hath pleased God to bless" him to his wife and kids to "share and share alike."
Slave owner James Gettys -- who bought, bred and enslaved human beings -- didn't just want to go to heaven. He wanted a decent resting place for his remains.
Not surprisingly, Gettys' will was honored and he doesn't just rest among the gentry of his time but his remains lie beneath a stunning obelisk sporting a larger-than-life bust with his likeness.
His slave's grandson -- a United States veteran who fought in the Civil War -- is lucky to have a resting place at all. Today, Samuel Stanton is buried in the Lincoln Cemetery. He was buried there in 1912 and rests beside 28 other Civil War veterans of color who were barred from the battlefield cemetery President Lincoln so famously dedicated to the soldiers who fought for freedom -- the white ones, that is.
In his Gettysburg Address Lincoln proclaimed, "Four score and seven years ago our fathers brought forth on this continent, a new nation, conceived in Liberty, and dedicated to the proposition that all men are created equal." That stanza -- which most school kids could recite by heart -- could not have been farther from the truth. Even the "United States Colored Troops" -- as they were called -- couldn't die equal.
Local historian and lifelong educator Betty Dorsey Myers wrote a book about the battle for equality in what is arguably America's most iconic Civil War city. Myer's work, Segregation in Death, details the struggle Civil War veteran Lloyd Watts and others faced purchasing a piece of land for their "colored cemetery." In 1867 only one man would sell to them and their cemetery had to be in the "colored" part of town.
Meyers own story is remarkable. A 1949 graduate of Gettysburg High School, Meyers was barred from her class trip because the class visited Washington, D.C., the nation's segregated capitol.
In the 1950s Meyers and her husband built a home on the land next to the "colored cemetery" because the builders in the area told them that that a black couple couldn't live in one of Gettysburg's newer developments. Meyers said the contractors told her that if they built them a house there, "they wouldn't be able to sell the lot next to them."
The 82-year-old Myers has spent decades documenting the history and protecting the remains of the soldiers resting next door. She recently recalled that a visitor who happened upon the graveyard had mentioned how isolated her home seemed. The area around Myers home and the neighboring cemetery has been gobbled-up by the ever-expanding Wellspan Gettysburg Hospital.
Myers responded to the notion that she and her silent neighbors are isolated with a knowing shrug, "Yeah, that's what segregation does."
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