Volume Five  Issue Four  August 2020
The History Center on Main Street
 83 and 61 North Main Street
Mansfield, PA
The Museum of Us
The History Center on Main Street
Director- Joyce M. Tice: President - Deb Talbot Bastian: V.P - Kathy McQuaid
M.S.N.S. First Black Student Graduated 1896
In Pursuit of Harry Seth Peterson
In June 1896, the Mansfield Advertiser wrote that Harry Peterson, a local person, was the first “person of color” to graduate from the Mansfield State Normal School. He was, in fact, the first ever enrolled in the school. With only one black family in town, it should have been easy to link him to his parents, but a few genealogical pebbles littered the road adding to the excitement of the pursuit.

The obvious family should have been barber Allen Peterson and his wife, Frances “Fanny” Brown. They lived on Elmira Street next door to Allen’s sister, Almira, and her husband, David Parker. Having been born in 1875, Harry Peterson should have been with them in the 1880 Mansfield census. He was not, and he was not with any other known family member.
The only known child of Allen and Fannie was a daughter who died young. There was no Harry Peterson of the right age to be found anyplace in the census. The 1890 census burned, as we know, and by 1900 Harry was married and in his own household. Census records did not provide a link to Allen and Fanny or anyone else.

Following the newspaper trail, the first account of Harry Seth Peterson in Mansfield was in 1883 when he was among many school children listed as having given a recitation at a Boro School entertainment. In the 1886-87 school year, Harry was a seventh grade student at The Model School on the M.S.N.S. campus. The Model School was part of Mansfield State Normal School and provided practice opportunities for students preparing to teach. If parents wanted their child to go there instead of to the Boro Graded School, they could apply for admission. Acceptance depended on how many students were wanted in each grade. Until the dedicated Model School Building was erected on campus in 1911, now called Belknap, Model School was held in several rooms in Alumni Hall.

In 1891 Harry graduated from eleventh grade at the Model School, the highest grade available at that time. He was awarded a scholarship to the Elmira School of Commerce.

Harry enrolled in the Mansfield State Normal School and graduated in 1896. He had been elected treasurer of his class. He was also elected, in 1894, as secretary of the Pitts Hose Company in Mansfield at a time when there were three fire companies. After graduation, Harry first took a job in Buffalo in a wholesale clothing company, but in 1897 he went to Claremont, Virginia as principal of a boarding school for colored students. In 1898, he had a teaching position in Gouldstown, N.J.

In 1898, Harry married Jessie Gertrude Sheffield. The announcement of the death of their infant daughter in 1900 is the first confirmation we have linking him to Allen and Fannie Peterson. The news item mentioned Fannie as the grandmother. The marriage license additionally confirms Allen Peterson and Fannie Brown as his parents. It still leaves us wondering where Harry was in 1880.

In 1901 Harry was among the attendees and members at the third annual banquet of the “Merry Men,” a social club of Mansfield’s male business community that partied at Robin Hood’s Cabin in Sherwood Forest. This was a brick building on the west side of the Tioga River that was used for many social events and outings for decades.

Harry was trained as a barber by his father, and worked both in Mansfield and in Smethport, Pa. He and Jessie had also lived in Buffalo where Harry was listed as a clerk. By 1910 Harry and Jessie were in Queens, N.Y. where he was a railway U.S. mail clerk. They relocated to Ellicottville in Cattaraugus County, N.Y. by 1915. This was Jessie’s hometown.

Harry and Jessie had one daughter, Vera, who died in her thirties in 1942 in Detroit with no known children. They divorced in 1924, and in 1925 Harry married Regina Briscoe and relocated to Salamanca in Cattaraugus County.

Harry retired in 1937 having worked the railway mail runs from Marion, Ohio to Salamanca. He died in Salamanca in 1953. Harry was a member of the Olean NY Masonic chapter. He was a charter member and served ten years as s ecretary of the Salamanca Square Circle Club .
Finally An Answer
Surprises in Harry’s obituary unlocked clues to solve the mystery of 1880 and led us down some more of those circuitous and challenging trails. Allen and Fannie Peterson were listed as his parents. Dropping from the sky were a sister and two brothers listed as survivors. They were Lila Plummer and David Peterson and Allen Peterson. Not all obituaries are totally correct, and this is partly a red herring. Tracking down Lila Plummer, we identified her as Lila Smith who in 1880 was the daughter of David U. Smith and Sophia Redder of Corning, NY. Also in the household were Emmett, David and Harry Smith, age 6.  Mystery solved. The surname Peterson in the obit was a mistake probably caused because Allen’s middle name was Peterson. The youngest of the Smith brothers, Allen Peterson Smith, was born in 1883 and named for the man who had, at about the same time, adopted Harry.

This new information led us down some more twists and turns. We suspect a link between the Peterson-Brown and the Smith-Redder families, but we have not yet identified it. Interestingly, Harry maintained his connections and his place in both his birth and adopted families. Harry’s Smith family of origin had moved to Buffalo, so Harry was living among them at various times.

Harry was double counted in the 1900 census. He was recorded as living on South Main Street in Mansfield on 07 June with wife, Jessie, and working as a barber as Harry Peterson. He was also listed in the household of David and Sophia Smith in Buffalo on 09 June and was listed as a porter in the name Harry S. Smith. Emmett, Lila, David and Allen P. Smith, age 16 were also present in Buffalo. I confirmed that Allen’s middle name was Peterson. Harry may have been going back and forth trying to find work or he was listed even though temporarily absent. Then as now, the census took a month to collect.

In the 1919 obituary of his birth father, David U. Smith, Harry was listed with his siblings as Harry Smith. While he always used the name Harry Seth Peterson, his birth family apparently preferred to use his original name.

Double counting in census was not unusual, especially with more transient young people who might circulate between parents, siblings and jobs. I have an example of a woman who was counted three times in one township by the same, apparently absent-minded, census taker.

Just before his death in 1922, Allen Peterson transferred property to Harry. We don’t have Allen’s or Fannie’s obituaries because they died during that 1912-1929 missing newspaper gap, but we are sure Harry is listed as a survivor. Fannie died in 1916.

Having experienced a fragmented start to his employment, as so many of us do, Harry settled into a long-term career with the U.S.P.S. and a long and stable life in a welcoming and comfortable community. The public records can only tell us the what, but not the why of the family situation. We do not have the letters, diaries, personal accounts to build a personality. We do, though, get an impression of Harry as a friendly, sociable and likeable person who won positions of leadership in a variety of social and community organizations.

In any genealogical pursuit, finding a photo of the person is icing on the cake. We thank Dave Guinn of the Mansfield University Archives for providing Harry’s picture.
Upcoming Events
We are on hold for events and Art Classes for the present.

We are open for visitors noon to 3 T, W, Th or by appointment.
Every Dollar you Donate will give us Two.
On the back of the museum is a small addition of four rooms that has been used as an apartment as far back as the 1870s, possibly originally intended as housing for the church's minister, but that's a guess.

We are remodeling this as home to our library and archives. Volunteers Jim Davies and Mary Robinson-Slabey have stripped it to its frame, and it is ready to be rebuilt.

The estimate comes to about $60,000. So far we have individual and organizational donations of about $20,000 which is a great start. We have an additional $10,000 available IF we can get MATCHING DONATIONS.

Having the library and archives in this building will cut the costs of operating two buildings in half, and it will make it more efficient to work. It will be a more unified experience for our visitors and resarchers.

Getting Ready to Rebuild

Why do we ask for donations in every newsletter? Because we have to.
It's the only way we can continue offering our important services to the community.
Your help will make it possible.

Annual memberships are an important part of keeping us operating. Please consider a new or renewed membership.

Members receive four to six issues annually of our printed journal Voices From the Archives.
Thank You to Our Gold Level Sponsors
Law Offices of Larry Mansfield
First Citizens Community Bank
Mansfield Auxiliary Corporation
Tri-County Rural Electric Cooperative, Inc.
Lutes Foundation
Thank You to Our Silver Level Sponsors
Strohecker Vision
Elite Therapy
Mansfield University Foundation
Dandy Mini Marts
The History Center on Main Street
The History Center on Main Street provided no goods or services in exchange for your contribution. Your contribution is deductible to the extent provided by law. The official registration and financial information of The History Center on Main Street, may be obtained from the Pennsylvania Department of State by calling toll free, within Pennsylvania, 1-800-732-0999. Registration does not imply endorsement