Donald E. Owens Sr.

This transcript includes portions of the tape that relate to the migration of African-American families to Cumberland County or the Underground Railroad. Donald Owens stated that he heard many of these stories from his grandmother, who raised him. Other portions of the tape contain his memories of events in the 1930s, visits to his uncle’s farm where he helped with butchering, going to school, and jobs that he had. 

Rachael Zuch: Okay, so let’s just get started then. I was wondering if you could just maybe say your name and give me a little bit about your family background - when you were born, where you’re from, that sort of thing.

Donald Owens: My name is Donald E. Owens, Sr. Well, I should say it Donald Ellsworth Owens, Sr. I was born September 1, 1930, in Carlisle, Pennsylvania. I lived here all my life, and before we go too much further, my both parents were college grads. But my mother died when I was 4 years old. And I was raised by my grandmother.

RZ: And what were their names, your parents’ names and your grandparents?

DO: My mother’s name was Sara. My grandmother’s name was Elsie Gumby and my great-grandmother was Rachel Ellen Gumby. They was the ones that raised me. I went to school through eighth grade, and I was big for my age. I went to work with men at 13, and I started supporting myself completely at 13. But, I went back to school and because we had a prejudiced school system in Carlisle, we had one black school, Wilson building, was all black students. They went from first to eighth grade at Wilson building. In the 8th grade we had 26 students, two was allowed to go to the high school. Out of 26, two. And those two were teachers’ children.

RZ: They were the children of the teachers? Okay.

DO: We had a principal, superintendent of the schools, Potter, and he said that there wasn’t enough room up there, there were too many blacks in the high school then and there wasn’t no room for no more.

RZ: Was the high school segregated then, too, or was it--?

DO: No, the high school was not segregated, but they were segregated because they only allowed so many students. There was only so many students allowed at a time at the high school. And that went on… I quit school and went to work because once I started making money for myself, I couldn’t go back and ask my grandmother for 5 cents because I was become a man.

RZ: Where were you working?

DO: Working construction. And I worked all my life up until to 1958 when the recession hit under the Eisenhower administration and I got laid off. 

(Describes his work in construction and the time he was out of work.)

DO: Now, getting back to how the Gumbys got into this area - See, there was two books at my grandmother’s house that belonged to my great-grandmother, and those two books disappeared. We think, we don’t think, we know, that one of the cousins that was living with my grandmother sold the books. Sold them. And she had it there in one of the books, she had over 500 births that she preformed in the Mt. Holly area. Carlisle, Mt. Holly area. Pierson Miller, one of the famous supporters of the historical society in Carlisle here, he was, she birthed him --

RZ: Oh, that is neat.

DO: -- along. See, him, my mother and my aunt went to school together at Mt. Holly Springs. My brother has the class picture of them in the sixth grade at Mt. Holly Springs. My family got to this area of the state because Mr. William Barnitz. You’ve heard of Barnitz Mill.

RZ: Heard of Barnitz Mill, yeah.

DO: He was starting a flour mill, grind mill to grind flour. Before that all flour, flour that people did, they had to do it at home with what they call … grind it with the rocks. 

Danielle Bailor: I think you guys have a couple of those up in your museum.

DO: They had to grind with rocks. Well, he was starting a grind mill so he went south to try to buy some slaves’ freedom to bring them north and they wouldn’t sell him people. So the word left out that if they make it to Pennsylvania they would have work. So my great-great-grandfather come to … they ran away with his three sons, John, Edward, and Sam. And they came through the mountains by night. And the bounty hunters got so close that they was in the in the trees and they were able to see the dogs’ eyes.

RZ: Oh, wow.

DO: And they crossed a stream of water, in the dead of winter, they crossed the stream of water, to get rid of the dogs’ scent. And continue to come north and when they got there, they settled at Barnitz and he promised them work.

RZ: What your great-grandfather’s name, do you know?

DO: No, I don’t know that. Actually, great-great-grandfather. I don’t know his name but I know my grandfather’s -- his name was John. And they come and they work in Barnitz, they work at the mills. They worked there, I don’t know how many years, maybe eight, ten, years and the boys… And then the Cumberland Valley Railroad was starting and Edward come to Carlisle and got a job on the Cumberland Valley Railroad. At that time I think they was making sixty cents a day at the grind mill for a ten-hour day.

RZ: Barnitz?

DO: Yeah, that was Barnitz. The railroad offered men a dollar a day for a ten-hour day.

RZ: A dollar a day and before they were making –?

DO: Sixty cents. And he come in and got a job on the railroad. Sam, the word got out that Harrisburg Steel in Harrisburg was starting a steel mill down there in Harrisburg and he went to Harrisburg and went to work in the steel mill. That’s how the Gumbys got to Harrisburg. He went to work down there in Harrisburg. And John stayed around and had a family. He worked at the mill and he also, that’s my great-grandfather, and he also started the church in Mt. Holly Springs, which is no more there, but he started the Methodist church at Mt. Holly Springs, he was a minister.

RZ: Ok, did that have any particular name or was it just the Methodist church?

DO: Wesley Church, the Wesley Church in Mt. Holly Springs. And he had a family … I think there was 17 kids. See, they all raised big families because of the farm work and the kids went to work in the mills …

(His relatives would move around to find work, and Donald mentioned Bonnybroook quarry. Back then, they went to the store every two months to stock up on items in bulk. They canned everything else that they grew at home. Great-grandmother worked as a midwife. She had to walk a long way and avoided bobcats by looking them in the eye. They would kill and can pigeons from the barn to stuff and cook in the winter. Blacks seldom had beef to eat – they raised cattle to sell. They killed the roosters to eat but kept the hens for their eggs.)

DO: My uncle told us just how hard things were for them in the South and how hard it was in the North here, but they drummed it out. From Barnitz’s, my great-grandmother moved down to Mt. Holly.

RZ: And now, who was your great-grandmother married to?

DO: She was married to John.

RZ: John.

DO: And they moved down to Mt. Holly Springs and they lived in a cabin on the mountains. I don’t know exactly when they come, but when my great-grandmother and them come to Carlisle, I don’t know exactly when. In the 20s sometime they come to Carlisle.

RZ: They go from Mt. Holly to Carlisle?

DO: From Mt. Holly to Carlisle, yeah.

(When he was 5 years old he was taken to Mt. Holly for butchering day and had to get up at 4:30 a.m. The young children had to fill kettles with water and set the fires under them so they would be boiling at first light. The hot water scalds the hogs and gets the skin soft so you can scrape the hair off. The first butchering was always on Thanksgiving morning. The men would be out butchering and the women would be inside cooking the big dinner. They treated hog skins with wood-ash when hair wouldn’t come off.)

DO: I don’t know if you ever know about the West Street AME Zion Church?

RZ: What about it?

DO: There’s a cellar down under there where the Underground Railroad was.

RZ: Yeah, I heard about it. I’ve never seen it - I’ve never been there, but I’ve heard they have a cellar.

DO: There’s a cellar there. And you go down that cellar and you stand and look, you can’t find it

RZ: Can’t find what?

DO: Where they used to keep slaves at.

RZ: Oh, like a secret compartment.

DO: Somebody has to take you there and show you where it is. Actually see it and then you can see how it was done. See, that church belonged to Quakers at first. Because there is no Methodist church that was started in Carlisle - it was started on Chapel Avenue. West Street AME Zion church was started in Chapel Avenue. And they bought that church because the Dutch people kept the slaves under there.

RZ: Now, wait, what does that mean?

DO: The Dutch, what do you call them, the Quakers. The thing about it is, that cellar at that time was before they did a lot of modernization and that was stables underneath there.

RZ: Stables.

DO: For the horses and stuff in the cellar.

RZ: Was there a way out? Or did the horses have to come out the stairs to get out of there?

DO: They had to come up through like a tunnel, almost, where the horses come up. And they brought, the wagons and stuff too, like a ramp there that went down into the cellar. And the thing about it is, at first … had to do it so careful because the bounty hunters would come and search for them, into the church and look for them. They’d come into the church and look for the slaves. And they had to hide them so well under this thing there, like they did. It’s the way they had to cut out stuff so they could hide them.

RZ: And it was the Quakers in the church hiding the slaves?

DO: Yeah, they work with the Underground Railroad. See, my – I said them books, I’d like to know where they are and who got them because there were so many dates in there. My great-grandmother – she was part Indian.

RZ: Oh really?

DO: Yeah, she was part Indian. But she, as part Indian, part Afro-American, and slave, she was taught to read and write.

RZ: Who taught her to read and write -- how did she learn?

DO: Oh, through the slave kids, I mean through the slave-owners’ children. They taught people how to read and write, the women, especially.

RZ: Why especially the women?

DO: Why the women? Because, the simple reason why, is stuff around the house and things, and going to the stores and stuff like that, buying stuff for them, different things that they need to talk to women for. Men, they say they didn’t need to be taught – their work was in the fields.

RZ: Ok. So the women were around the house more and they -

DO: Yeah, and different things the women stayed around the house they had them doing. Listen to this, like I said I don’t know the dates, but I know my grandmother was born in 1894.

RZ: And what was her name again, your grandmother?

DO: Elsie.

RZ: Elsie. Okay.

DO: Yeah. And her older sister was born in 82. 1982 and uh, and Aunt Mary Simms, she was born in 1982.

RZ: Wait, 1882 or 19-?

DO: 1882.

(Talks about his youngest aunt, Miss Rachel, who passed away.)

RZ: Were any of them involved in hiding people in this church? Were they in this church at all?

DO: No. Well, in the church?

RZ: Yeah.

DO: Oh yeah. Well, my uncle Edward was on the original to start the church here in Carlisle. The Methodist church here in Carlisle.

RZ: Ok. So, they had already started a church in Mt. Holly.

DO: In Mt. Holly --

RZ: Your great-grandfather’s brother? Is that -- ?

DO: My great-grandmother’s husband start the church in Mt. Holly.

RZ: Ok, and then your uncle started a church in Carlisle.

DO: His brother was one of the members to start the church in Carlisle. Yeah, and he, Uncle Ed was the last one that I know in 1936 -- 35, when he went around. He was up in the eighties then, but he went around to every …, he kept track of the family. And in the summer, he went around to visit all the families in the Harrisburg area all over, wherever the Gumbys were located. To Chambersburg, all over.

(Uncle Ed visited many people, including a niece in Shippensburg. Uncle Ed talked about how a family should be. He always said one thing – “If you made 10 cents, you put 2 cents away.” Donald loved Thanksgiving, because the day after was baking season and remembered coming home from school and eating broken cookies. When one of the children went to the store each week, they were allowed to buy four pieces of candy to share with their siblings. Every morning he would be called to get up at 5:30, then come downstairs for breakfast and reading from the bible at 6:00 am. His job was to see that the woodbox was filled and kindling was cut. They didn’t keep the fire overnight and never locked the front door. Great-grandma said that “If you lock the front door, you hurt somebody, somebody that needs help.” When relief started in 1939, two women came to the house to ask his grandmother if she wanted to apply for relief.

[End of side 1, begin side 2]

While they were there, a man came up with extra beans and gave them to her, saying she paid when she said “thank you.” She said then to the two women that they should go see the neighbor around the corner, because her Father was taking care of her. When hogs are butchered they are put in a big wooden barrel for days to cure. To see if ingredients for curing them are mixed, they’d crack a raw egg and if it floated it was ready, but if it went to the bottom it wasn’t salty enough. The uncle called for cuts of meat to pack in the barrel. He called for the flitch, but Donald didn’t know what that was. The uncle smacked him across the back and said it was right under Donald’s hand. Donald said “No, that’s the bacon.” The uncle said, “It ain’t called bacon until its cured – now, it’s flitch.” They made scrapple in the big kettles, he remembers learning how to cut the lard off the skin. He had to make the knife very sharp and move the skin [at his point Donald measured with his hands a slice of skin about ½ foot by 2.5 feet] under the knife, not cut straight down. They added cornmeal and flour and other ground up meat by sight, not by measuring. The scrapple was stirred and cooked until the butcher could stick his finger down in and not have it burned. If it wasn’t done, his finger would get burnt. The butcher could tell the size of a hog by its head, since when cut correctly every 10 pounds of head meant a 100 pounds of hog.)

DO: They left from Barnitz sometime before 1884. I know that for a fact, because Aunt Mary, that was the oldest of my grandmother’s children. So I know –

RZ: Your great-grandmother’s?

DO: Of my great-grandmother’s children. Her first child was Mary. And I know that they was in Barnitz before 1884.

(During the 1936 flood, his Aunt Simms lived in Shipoke. His Uncle Harry worked at the Capitol in Harrisburg. When they were having everyone who lived near the river evacuate, Donald, Harry and Aunt Simms were in the last car to cross the Market Street Bridge. The bridge was in the process of being closed, but Uncle Harry had a government sticker on his car, and the troopers let them across. The water was on the bridge by the time they got to the West Shore. In the winter in Carlisle, they had snow making the streets one way. A man stood at either end, and they passed a flag along with the cars that went through. If one of the flags was not accounted for at either end, then it meant there was a car in the middle.)

DO: We used to have an annual picnic at Williams Grove. The Union Picnic. That was what you called the black picnic at Williams Grove. We had people from Winchester, Virginia used to come down. See, it was part of the thing of the free slaves.

RZ: Is that why it was called the Union picnic?

DO: Yeah. From Winchester on down it was part of their celebration of the free slaves, they would come down for a picnic. It was a big thing because, just like you said, they had the … My uncle and them said that people in town used to go down by horse and buggy. When they first started they used to come down by horse and buggy. See, down there it was such a great day that there was three meals served.

RZ: Oh, it was a whole-day picnic.

DO: The whole-day picnic. They left town here on the horse and buggy at 5 o’clock in the morning to get down there. Breakfast was cooked down there, and they took their stoves and everything with them to cook their breakfast down there. Yes, sir, it was a whole day picnic. Whole day and the night.

RZ: So when would they have this, in the summer?

DO: Yeah in the summer. In August.

RZ: In August?

DO: The last Thursday in August was always the Union picnic.

RZ: And people came up from the south, too?

DO: From Winchester. All the way from Winchester. We had people from Winchester that come up by busloads and also by train. See, you had the train from Winchester that come into Williams Grove. Come all the way up and then the train come into Williams Grove.

DB: That was one of the stops.

DO: That there picnic day they would bring the coaches into Williams Grove. Yeah, they would bring them in what’s called special train and they would sit there at night. When they getting ready to go back the train would leave, and go back dropping the people off all the way from Shippensburg, Chambersburg, Hagerstown, all the way down to Winchester.

RZ: And then this was a picnic to celebrate the end of slavery? What exactly was the reason for this?

DO: Yeah, it was end slavery, to union, to united together.

RZ: I could probably sit here and listen to these all day. I had a couple questions, actually. Well, I guess first, the Barnitz thing. That was your great-great-grandfather, right? With his three sons that came up?

DO: From Virginia, they come up from southern Virginia.

RZ: From southern Virginia, okay. And that was because they heard that this Barnitz guy was looking--?

DO: He had been down through there to try to buy their freedom. But the slave owners wouldn’t sell.

RZ: All right, and so did your great-grandfather, did he ever, where did he hear about this from? Did they try and buy him?

DO: Oh yeah, they stopped at the farm, at the plantation where he was at, and at the uh, at the auctions. See, all the slaves was not dumb. They was able, some of them, to pick up on English and the talk of Americans. They was able to understand what was going on. See, they started real early, … take some of them went far as Concord in Massachusetts, went up through there. See, they start hearing these things in these there plantations and then, eventually some of them, they would say ‘Well, let’s go.’

RZ: They would say what?

DO: Let’s go. And they ran, see. A lot of them, my uncle said, and then they ran and they cut their foot off.

RZ: Why’d they cut their foot off? If they ran away and they caught you again?

DO: They brought you back, they cut right all your toes and stuff off. Just hacked them off to try to keep you from running away.

(Donald’s uncle told him about the horses - During plowing season, the horses were worked hard and stayed at the end of the pasture. During haying season, when they just had to pull the wagon, work was easy, and the horses stayed near the barn ready for work.)

DO: Come across the mountains to work at the mill and then from the mill they spread out. See, most of the people come up in that area in the same way. On the other side, my grandmother on my father’s side, they went up into that Mercersburg area. See, they and those people, instead of coming into the cities and stuff, they stayed in the mountain areas. If you looked, really looked, they stayed in the mountains.

DB: So they wouldn’t get caught.

DO: They didn’t want to get caught.

DB: The bounty hunters.

DO: They stayed in the mountain areas and stuff to keep them from being caught and because they didn’t, shall we say, they didn’t trust the people in the cities.

RZ: They didn’t trust anyone?

DO: They didn’t trust them until they started to learn them.

RZ: Oh, well that makes sense. You have to get to know them.

DO: Like I say, see now, the Gumby family from the Barnitz area, got to know them, because of my great-grandmother being the midwife. See, by her being the midwife then, people all over, from almost to Boiling Springs, Mount Holly area, they got to know her from being a midwife.

(Explains how the two doctors his great-grandmother worked for recommended her as a midwife to the pregnant women they treated.)

RZ: Do you know of anyone who ever knew anyone else who escaped to come up to Pennsylvania? Escaped from slavery or ran away, or anything like that?

DO: Uh, no, they, … I wouldn’t say they didn’t know nobody, but they didn’t talk too much about it. They didn’t talk too much about it, because as I said, it was always a fear that until late, that those bounty hunters would come get them. 

RZ: So people just didn’t talk about it?

DO: They didn’t talk to anybody else about it.

(Danielle talks about looking for the family Bible with the names in it.)

DO: All the family records were kept in it. I would show you the beautiful writing my great-grandmother had. I mean, it was, shall we say this, like practice you know, everything was perfect, the i’s were all dotted perfectly. I mean it was --

RZ: Really beautiful, huh?

DO: That’s right. A thing of beauty. You know, and that person that didn’t have the actual schooling.

(Talks about his granddaughter who is studying for her master’s in law and has traveled around the world. End of interview.)

Information given after the interview by Danielle Bailor.

Rachael Zuch, "Donald E. Owens Sr., August 11, 2005," in the Elizabeth V. and George F. Gardner Digital Library,, (accessed Month Day, Year).

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