Introduction to the Trailblazers

“Once [I was arrested] for standing in the road to prevent trucks from entering a housing construction site where no Blacks were employed, [and] a second time for leading a demonstration against a slum landlord [by conducting a prayer service in the street].” Those are the words of LeRoy Patrick (1915–2006), minister, civil rights leader, former member of the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission (PHMC), and recognized by PHMC as a “trailblazer.” Dr. Patrick proved that to lead and provide direction, sometimes one must be an obstacle and force for change.

It’s in this spirit that those who have blazed the trail of leadership, discovery, invention, and the arts are recognized by PHMC through its Trailblazers program. From Cyrus Bustill (1732–1806), a baker who supplied food to the Continental army during the Revolutionary war, to Francis Johnson (1792–1844), the first African American composer to have his music published as sheet music, and to Joseph Winters (1816–1916), an abolitionist and inventor of the fire ladder, and Robert L. Vann (1879–1940), publisher of the Pittsburgh Courier, the contributions by African Americans have been critical to the progress of Pennsylvania, the nation, and the world.

As guidance for this recognition, PHMC identifies a Trailblazer as an African American man or woman whose significance is statewide and often national, and an individual with a strong connection to Pennsylvania. This collective includes both well-known and little-known individuals from diverse backgrounds and varied accomplishments, and has evolved into a multi-faceted look into the African American experience in Pennsylvania through an exhibition and, recently, a book project titled Trailblazers: Innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania History.

Much of the impetus and success of this initiative is credited to Eric Ledell Smith (1949–2008), who joined PHMC as a historian in 1993. In addition to this article’s accompanying information about Smith from his colleague, William A. Sisson, chief of The State Museum of Pennsylvania’s Curatorial Division, it’s noted that Smith had a passion and exuberance for the accomplishments of all people, especially those that had little or no recognition in history or popular culture. It was this passion that Smith brought forward to complete both the Trailblazers exhibition in The State Museum and his authorship of twenty-three of the proposed fifty essays that will comprise the Trailblazers book. With the untimely death of Smith in 2008 and turning a somber page to complete publication of such a worthy book, a search was conducted for an author who had the capability to perform the research and complete the remaining twenty-seven essays. Rachel L. Jones Williams, who had authored an excellent feature article for Pennsylvania Heritage about Pennsylvania African American forester Ralph Brock (“Reviving—And Revising—The Reputation of Ralph Elwood Brock,” Fall 2007), was a natural choice. Jones Williams is no stranger to PHMC. In 2007, she arrived as a member of the inaugural class of PHMC’s Minority Internship Program. During her internship, Jones Williams completed the selection, research, and authorship for five displays about African Americans, which comprised an exhibit at The State Museum of Pennsylvania. She recently attended the Cooperstown Graduate Program for History Museum Studies in Cooperstown, New York, earning her Masters of Arts in history museum studies. With completion of her authorship, the publication of Trailblazers is slated for late 2010 by PHMC’s Publications and Sales Division.

As a companion to The State Museum’s twenty-panel exhibit, “Trailblazers: Notable African Americans in Pennsylvania History,” which debuted in 2006 and will be reinstalled in 2010 with additional elements, the book will serve to both underscore the valuable contributions by African Americans in Pennsylvania and also serve to emphasize PHMC’s theme for 2010, “Black History in Pennsylvania: Communities in Common.” No doubt, these Trailblazers have had a positive global impact on both individual and community.

Editor’s Note: Trailblazers: Innovative African Americans in Pennsylvania History, to be published by PHMC in late 2010, will feature fifty essays about African Americans from Pennsylvania whose contributions have impacted the lives of many. Within the pages of Pennsylvania Heritage, beginning with the Winter 2010 edition and continuing through to the Fall 2010 edition, one essay will be selected to enlighten and emphasize the common ground and rich diversity of Pennsylvania’s African American history.