Friday, August 22 at 10 a.m. the Samuel Harrison Society hosts a groundbreaking ceremony for the Samuel Harrison House, 82 Third Street, Pittsfield, Massachusetts. The house, longtime home to renowned African-American equal rights advocate Reverend Samuel Harrison (1818-1900), is a National Register of Historic Places landmark, a National Parks Service "Save America's Treasures" Preservation project, and a Massachusetts Historical Commission Preservation project. The ceremony is free and open to the public. State Senator Benjamin Downing and State Representative Christopher Speranzo are expected to attend.
The preservation and restoration of the Samuel Harrison House began in May 2004 when Ruth Edmonds Hill, great-granddaughter of the Reverend Samuel Harrison traveled with her husband, Dr. Hugh M. Hill, to Pittsfield from Cambridge by train to meet with a small group of Pittsfielders interested in saving the Samuel Harrison House, including Mayor James M. Ruberto, Ivan Newton, historian of the Second Congregational Church, and Susan Denault, archivist from the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts, Ruth's intuition that her family homestead had historic value saved the modest 19th century house in one of Pittsfield's oldest neighborhoods known as Morningside from the wrecking ball. She had notified the Massachusetts Historical Commission of her great-grandfather's lifelong pioneering spirit and they, in turn, denied the city's request to demolish the deteriorating structure. At just about the same time, filmmaker Mike Kirk was producing a documentary "A Trumpet at The Walls of Jericho: The Untold Story of Samuel Harrison" which aired on PBS in February of 2005.
Rev. Samuel Harrison, an African-American minister born into slavery and living from 1818 to 1900, was a pioneering civil rights activist, an ardent abolitionist, and an eloquent orator and writer. Rev. Harrison was the first minister of the Second Congregational Church, Pittsfield, founded in 1846, a church exclusively for persons of color.
Rev. Harrison interrupted his ministry at the Second Congregational Church when he was commissioned by Governor John Albion Andrew who encouraged President Abraham Lincoln to create the first black Civil War regiment. During his service, Rev. Harrison learned that the paymaster refused to pay the men of the 54th Regiment the same amount paid to white troops because they were of "African descent." Rev. Harrison immediately pleaded their case to Governor Andrew who vigorously and repeatedly petitioned President Lincoln to honor the claim for equal pay. In June 1864, legislation requiring equal pay was passed in the army appropriations bill. In his autobiography, Rev. Harrison writes that it was suggested during his brief military service that he was "the victim upon whom the whole matter of equal pay would turn."
Two years after his death, a tablet commemorating his forty years of ministering to Pittsfield's African-Americans was placed at the Second Congregational Church with the inscription: "A Wise Leader, An Honored Citizen, An Ardent Patriot, A Beloved Messenger of the Lord; he wrought well for his people, his Country and his God."
The Samuel Harrison Society's very first champion was U.S. Congressman John Olver, who secured a Save America's Treasures matching grant in the amount of $246,000. Congressman Olver's significant support validated the Society's belief that that the house is an historic asset that needs preserving and launched a collaboration of efforts by Mayor James M. Ruberto, State Representative Christopher Speranzo and State Senator Ben Downing.
"The Samuel Harrison Society is extraordinarily grateful to Ruth for trusting our stewardship of her family homestead. We are committed to honoring Harrison family history by restoring and preserving Reverend Harrison's homestead; using it as a place to teach the values embodied in his noble life, his enduring beliefs, his extraordinary writings; and to define a chapter in the story of us as a people by providing greater insight into African-American history. We have a significant, yet still undiscovered, piece of national history and civic pride right here in Pittsfield, Massachusetts," states Samuel Harrison Society President Linda Tyer. She continued, "It is with great pride that we have achieved this milestone - a groundbreaking. And we anticipate with enthusiasm a day in the not too distant future when we welcome our first visitors to the Samuel Harrison House."