Boston’s Common is the oldest park in the nation. Other New England towns have common areas owned by the public at large. In the 19th century, commons were, well, common throughout the country. Columbia, for example, had a “commons” along the Susquehanna River.
Lancaster’s 19th century common, or “the commons,” was “an open field opposite the Locomotive Works in Lancaster’s Northeastern ward,” according to the April 27, 1870, edition of Lancaster’s Daily Evening Express. (Penn Iron Co. replaced the Locomotive Works. Select Security operates there now.)
Lancaster’s common operated from at least the early 1860s through the 1880s. It was primarily a place where Lancaster residents gathered to view a variety of entertainment — from a turkey shoot in November 1869 to Forepaugh’s Menagerie and Circus in October 1870.
Houses began to dot the field in 1873, according to the Express, but the commons remained open to entertainment through the early 1880s, according to several news accounts.
One of the largest events ever held at the site was the late April 1870 celebration of the ratification of the 15th Amendment to the Constitution, the amendment that enfranchised Black men.
Congress had ratified the 15th Amendment that February. Two months later, about 300 Black residents of Lancaster held a mass parade from Bethel AME Church, on East Strawberry Street, out to “the commons.” Several thousand residents, most of them white, met them there.
The parade featured bands, riders on horseback and a wagon in which 20 Black girls dressed in white waved miniature flags.
E.H. Rauch addressed the assemblage. A clerk of courts, newspaper publisher and Civil War veteran, Rauch was one of the first Lancaster men to make a public declaration of his involvement in the Underground Railroad.
According to Lancaster historian Leroy Hopkins, Rauch acknowledged for the first time that he had been a spy for U.S. Rep. Thaddeus Stevens in the 1840s and ’50s, helping to undermine a Lancaster slave catcher.
The Rev. Robert Boston, pastor of Bethel AME and organizer of the celebration, also addressed the crowd. Along with Rauch, Boston had helped Stevens by spying on the slave catcher in Lancaster.
Although Black people “were not yet educated in the tactics of politicians,” Boston told the crowd, he was “confident that they would feel at no loss how to vote at the proper time,” according to Father Abraham, a regional newspaper published in Reading.
“Thus ended the first political demonstration of the colored people of Lancaster,” reported Father Abraham, wrapping up the day’s events. “It was creditable to them in every respect.”
Randolph Harris, an independent consulting historian in Lancaster, wants to move the story of the commons to the present. First, he would like to locate the precise field where these events were held. A prime candidate is the J. Walter Miller Co. property across East Fulton Street from Select Security.
Perhaps volunteers can do the tedious work of searching titles to discover who owned “the commons” in 1870, Harris suggests. He believes the space is “worthy of some kind of commemoration.”
Also, says Harris, “we could try to engage the deep energies of young people who have taken to the streets in recent months and do a recreation with them of the parade from Bethel AME to the commons in 1870 — young folk and us old history nerds and others.”
Jack Brubaker, retired from the LNP | LancasterOnline staff, writes “The Scribbler” column every Sunday. He welcomes comments and contributions at email@example.com.