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'Live by his example': Pittsfield minister pushed for equal pay for Black troops in Civil War

The fight against systemic racism in the United States isn’t new. Some of its roots can be traced back to the activism of Black residents in western Massachusetts — to people like Elizabeth Freeman, Sojourner Truth and W.E.B. Du Bois.

A lesser known early civil rights advocate is Pittsfield minister Samuel Harrison, who pushed for equal pay for Black soldiers during the Civil War.

His descendants have long been proud of him, including his granddaughter, Florence Jacobs Edmonds, a now-deceased Pittsfield nurse.

"Would you want to know more about my grandfather at this time?" Edmonds asked in an interview recorded in 1980 when she was about 90 years old.

Her grandfather was born enslaved in 1818.

"And it was soon after ... that the whole family was set free of slave bondage," said Edmonds.

Her daughter Ruth Hill, Samuel Harrison’s great-granddaughter, and an oral historian, did the interview.

"His parents were slaves so ... " began Hill. "His parents were slaves and he was a slave when he was born," finished Edmonds.

Sometime after Harrison's birth, according to his memoir, the slave owner emancipated him and his mother, offering her the chance to "emigrate" to Africa or stay and work for his family in New York. She took the job.

Harrison’s childhood wasn’t easy. At age 9, he left school to learn to be a shoemaker. Eventually, as a young man, he found God and decided to become a minister. But getting the education was difficult because of racial barriers and the cost of schooling.

Marlena Willis stands outside Samuel Harrison's house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Willis is president of the Samuel Harrison Society.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
Marlena Willis stands outside Samuel Harrison's house in Pittsfield, Massachusetts. Willis is president of the Samuel Harrison Society.

'We need to start our own church'

In 1850, when Harrison was 32, he became pastor of theSecond Congregational Church in Pittsfield.

"He was really the first minister of the church that we belonged to, that was formed by seven Black people." Edmonds said. "That was a breakoff from the white church."

A breakoff because white churchgoers refused to use the same communion cup as Black members, said Marlena Willis, a current member of the Second Congregational Church. 

Blayne Whitfield, great-great-grandson to Samuel Harrison, inside Harrison's Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
Blayne Whitfield, great-great-grandson to Samuel Harrison, inside Harrison's Pittsfield, Massachusetts, home, which is on the National Register of Historic Places.

"A white person would not drink behind a Black person. That caused bad feelings. And they wouldn’t rectify it," she said. "So these people decided, 'Well, we need to start our own church where we can feel safe.'"

Willis stood outside Harrison’s house in Pittsfield. Built around 1858, it is now a museum and on the National Register of Historic Places.

Harrison’s great-great-grandson, Blayne Whitfield, takes a seat among displays depicting the minister’s life. Whitfield said Harrison’s message from the 19th century is still relevant.

"It speaks to me because I think we’re still trying to make the same argument as African Americans," Whitfield said.

Harrison made that argument as a minister and an early civil rights pioneer. Whitfield reads from something Harrison wrote in 1877, titled "AN APPEAL of a COLORED MAN to His Fellow-Citizens of a Fairer Hue in the UNITED STATES." In it, Harrison argues for equal treatment under the law.

"The interest of the one race, if I may [say so] speak, is the interest of the other. We are of one language, and the same system of laws are essential to govern both. When justice is practiced towards us, there is no need of special legislation for our race. We are no different from other men and women; we have hopes and aspirations and inclinations the same as others. This being so, all we ask is to be treated as other men and women are."

When the Civil War broke out, and Massachusetts formed a regiment for Black soldiers, the 54th, Harrison persuaded a number of young men to enlist.

Whitfield imagines his great-great-grandfather talking to a recruit.

"'Son, this is a very special time. We have an opportunity here before us to secure our own freedom,'" Whitfield said.

Harrison believed fighting in this war was a way to right some of the wrongs against Black Americans.

Historian Ann-Elizabeth Barnes read from a recruiting poster, which offered the same pay as white soldiers.

"TO COLORED MEN. 54th REGIMENT! MASSACHUSETTS VOLUNTEERS, OF AFRICAN DESCENT! $100 BOUNTY! At the expiration of the term of service. PAY, $13 A MONTH!"

The promise of that pay would become a broken promise, as Harrison would learn firsthand.

'Give comfort to the soldiers'

After one of the bloodiest battles of the Black regiment, the battle for Fort Wagner, Massachusetts Governor John Andrew traveled to Pittsfield. Andrew came to the Berkshires to express his condolences to the widow of Robert Gould Shaw, the white colonel who led the 54th regiment in the battle for Fort Wagner, and was killed along with many Black soldiers. 

On the governor’s request, Reverend Harrison met him at the Pittsfield train depot.

"It was a hot July day in 1863 and he arrived at the train station around 9 a.m. and the train pulled in and the governor of Massachusetts got off the train," Barnes said.

The governor proposed a mission to the minister, according to Barnes: "Whether you would be willing to go down to South Carolina and give comfort to the soldiers who had just fought in the battle at Fort Wagner."

Harrison accepted. But it was a hard trip south on a government steamboat where he was, at first, denied food and a place to sleep. Once in South Carolina, he preached Sundays and visited wounded soldiers in the hospital.

Soon, he became their chaplain — an officer in the Black regiment. But the title didn’t protect him from discrimination. 

"The [Union Army] paymaster declined to pay the men of the regiment the same amount paid to white troops because they were men of African descent," Harrison wrote in his memoir.

The Black troops protested.

Historian Ann-Elizabeth Barnes has written a book about Samuel Harrison.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
Historian Ann-Elizabeth Barnes has written a book about Samuel Harrison.

"These were men from all over, from Ohio, from Pennsylvania, from Connecticut — soldiers that did not know each other and yet they were unified in not taking the lower wage," Barnes said. "They held out for one and a half years of no pay."

A huge sacrifice, especially for their families back home. Harrison was sick with worry about his wife and six children at home in Pittsfield. 

Some of the men wrote to newspapers demanding equal pay.

"Do we not fill the same ranks?" they wrote. "Do we not take up the same length of ground in the grave-yard that others do?"

Harrison also wrote. In a letter to Governor Andrew, he described what happened when he requested his pay. Andrew then wrote this to President Abraham Lincoln: "I beg leave to submit to your consideration by this communication and accompanying papers the case of Reverend Samuel Harrison."

The letter went on to quote the army paymaster about Harrison’s request to be paid the usual rate.

"He being, of African descent, I decline paying, under Act of Congress passed July 17, 1862, employing persons of African descent in the military service of the United States. The Chaplain declines to receive anything less."

Lincoln consulted with his attorney general, Edward Bates, who advised that Harrison should be paid what he had been promised.

Lincoln turned the larger question of equal pay for all Black troops to Congress, which eventually approved equal pay.

'We are trying to live by his example'

Back in Pittsfield, sitting in his great great grandfather’s house, Blayne Whitfield said he turned to the minister’s writing for inspiration last year after George Floyd was murdered.

A poster inside the office at the Samuel Harrison House.
Credit Nancy Eve Cohen / NEPM
A poster inside the office at the Samuel Harrison House.

"When I saw all the people in the streets asking for the same things, essentially just equal justice, to me, it still speaks today," Whitfield said.

Marlena Willis, who is the president of the Samuel Harrison Society, agrees. She said today, with police violence and the push back against voting rights, Harrison’s life is instructive.

"I know that he would speak up. I know that he would fight with every ounce of energy that he had in him. So we are trying to live by his example," she said. "To inspire people to do what is right and to give people hope."

Willis said programs held at the Samuel Harrison House can help teach children to carry his message forward.

Nancy Eve Cohen is a senior reporter focusing on Berkshire County. Earlier in her career she was NPR’s Midwest editor in Washington, D.C., managing editor of the Northeast Environmental Hub and recorded sound for TV networks on global assignments, including the war in Sarajevo and an interview with Fidel Castro.
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