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Juneteenth: On Slavery, Emancipation, and Incarceration

June 19, 2020 marks the 155-year anniversary of Juneteenth—a holiday commemorating the abolition of slavery in the state of Texas, which effectively emancipated the last remaining enslaved people in the United States. But the vestiges of slavery continue to ripple through our country. Black people in America still face systematic oppression and the effects of institutionalized racism. This is especially apparent when we examine policing and incarceration of Black people in the United States today.

In recent years, we’ve made a concerted effort to discuss the interplay between race and the justice system with our visitors. In our Big Graph and Prisons Today exhibits, we examine the disproportionate impact that prisons have on people of color. We ask our visitors: how has your race, class, education, and exposure to trauma impacted your relationship to the justice system? During this time, we’ve also asked ourselves: whose stories aren’t we telling at Eastern State and why? Asking this question inspired us to commit ourselves to uncovering and sharing the previously untold stories of people incarcerated at Eastern State. This includes those with connections to American slavery.

Using reception registers, warden’s journals, and discharge records, we’ve steadily unearthed and cataloged data on 35 people who had some connection to the institution of slavery before their incarceration at Eastern State. On Juneteenth, as we continue the conversation about racism and mass incarceration today, we feel it’s important to bring some of these stories to light.

Charlotte Hilton. Charlotte Hilton arrived at the penitentiary in 1843 with a larceny sentence. Charlotte and her two accomplices were convicted of stealing 11 plates, valued at five cents each. The purloined goods, totaling $0.55 (about $15 in today’s currency), earned Charlotte and her co-conspirators three years in prison. On two reception registers, prison officials noted that she had been enslaved in Maryland. The documents remarked that her husband had “purchased her freedom.” On May 9, 1846, three years to the day she arrived, Charlotte left the penitentiary. Warden Thomas Scattergood wrote that “No. 1669 (Charlotte) was sent in the wagon to a very respectable family where she is engaged at service. The benevolent head of which I have no doubt [will] do all in her power to strengthen the good resolutions that have been form’d whilst the object of her care was a sojourner with us.”

George Norman. A free Black man living in Carlisle, Pennsylvania in the late 1840s, George Norman helped his wife Hester escape slavery in Maryland. After Hester’s former owner pursued her to Pennsylvania (a free state) and locked her in the county jail, George Norman and others from Carlisle’s free Black community tussled with the slave catchers. Hester escaped, but George and 10 others were convicted of rioting and served nine months at Eastern State. In securing his wife’s freedom, George lost his own.

Thomas Dane. Thomas Dane arrived at the penitentiary on March 15, 1870 with an arson sentence. Prison officials wrote, “Born a slave, Maryland,” on his reception register. After 16 months of incarceration, Dane escaped from the prison by swimming through a sewer. Warden Edward Townsend wrote in his journal on August 1, 1871: “I have the extreme mortification to record that last evening three prisoners, viz. 6591, Thomas Dane, 6774, John Thomas, and 6775, William Thomas… made their escape through the sewer coming out into Corinthian Avenue near Parrish St. Although rigorous measures have been resorted to, they have not yet been captured.” All three men were recaptured within a few days, and the prison paid a reward of $50 for each of them. The warden was surprisingly empathic toward the runaways upon their recapture, writing: “After a perilous and terribly laborious struggle for freedom, these poor fellows had but 2 or 3 days’ freedom & that not enjoyed as they were under constant & anxious fear of recapture.” Dane served out his sentence, leaving the prison in 1875.

Most of Eastern State’s population of formerly enslaved people came from Maryland and Virginia—slave states whose borders abutted or came close to Pennsylvania. Others had roots in the Carolinas, Louisiana, and Alabama. Some arrived at the prison by way of Indiana, New York, and Delaware.

Of the 35 people whom we know were formerly enslaved, seven died at the prison—a 20% mortality rate. In 1843, when Charlotte Hilton and at least one other formerly enslaved person arrived to serve sentences, the mortality rate among White prisoners was 1.85% and among Black prisoners 6.63%. Outside the walls, in Philadelphia, the mortality rate among White people was 1.82% and among Black people 2.49%.

These stories and statistics reveal a lot, but also leave us with plenty of questions. What role did slavery play in their eventual incarceration? What other oppressive systems did Hilton, Norman, and Dane have to navigate for the rest of their lives as 19th century Black Americans? What were their internal lives like, beyond the history we can piece together from wardens’ journals, court records, and death certificates? And, perhaps most importantly, what can their stories, and the stories of their descendants, teach us about the American criminal justice system today?

Annie Anderson
Manager, Research and Public Programming

2017 American Aliance of Museums Excellence in Exhibitions Overall Winner