History Club embarks on Erie’s African-American heritage trail


Laren Reesman, Staff writer

African American history is not often thought of in relation to Erie, but it is in fact more significant than you would think.

On Oct. 11, the Mercyhurst History Club toured Erie Cemetery plots of particular significance to Erie history and part of the African American Shared Heritage Trail.

According to Chris Magoc, Ph.D., and professor of History at Mercyhurst, the plots toured were both people of color and European descent who worked to free and end slavery through work on the Underground Railroad, helping escaped slaves reach Canada and freedom.

One interesting grave holds Morrow B. Lowry, an abolitionist who owned the land Mercyhurst now stands on.

“It was really cool to learn this about our school, that it has the legacy of someone so devoted to fighting slavery,” said junior Lily Smith, president of the History Club.

Another significant site was the resting place of composer Harry T. Burleigh who was born in Erie, PA.

Magoc said Burleigh is internationally renowned for his compositions, mostly African American spirituals.

Smith said she has a personal connection to the works of Burleigh because her father sang many of them in his time as a professional classical singer.

Burleigh produced over 200 songs, including one of his most popular, titled “Deep River,” which has been sung by choirs around the world and arranged for many different groups. Both Smith and Magoc agreed that being able to visit the graves in person was an enriching experience for everyone and they received lots of positive feedback.

The History Club has upcoming trips planned for November to visit the Hagen History Center and the Erie County Historical Society.

One can also expect several more trips from the History Club in the Spring of 2022 as they continue to explore Erie’s history.

Even during the pandemic last spring, Smith and a club group provided video tours of several of these sites to supplement History Club’s usual in-person meetings.

The Shared Heritage Trail extends through all of Erie County and has 29 sites total and covers Erie’s involvement in Black history and civil rights since the first slaves arrived in 1619.

The Erie Cemetery was established in 1851, and in addition to Lowry and Burleigh, houses the final resting place of William Himrod, William Bladen and many Black military veterans from wars fought throughout history.

A few of the trial sites can be passed simply driving down State Street, including the Lawrence Music Studio and the John S. Hicks Home and Ice Cream Factory, which was one of the first to use steam power to freeze the cream.

Out of the 29 sites, 20 are clustered within the city of Erie. The trail is a community-wide collaboration involving organizations such as Erie Yesterday, WQLN Public Media, Erie Arts & Culture, the Thomas B. Hagen History Center and Mercyhurst’s own Public History Center.

Magoc recommends visiting the website (sharedheritage.org) for more information, including site locations and an in-depth timeline.

The Mercyhurst History Club will continue to share Erie’s little-known and sometimes surprising history, providing meaningful trips around the city in the process. To join the History Club email Smith at lsmith37@lakers.mercy-hurst.edu, Averill Earls, Ph.D., at aearls@mercyhurst.edu, or Treasurer Abby Cullen at aculle08@lakers.mercyhurst.edu. Also, check Laker Launchpad for their upcoming events.