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‘Not just a black neighborhood’; Middletown’s African-American community reunites, reminisces

By Dan Miller

danmiller@pressandjournal.com

717-944-4628
Posted 7/31/19

Owen Hannah and Carl Brookins grew up a few doors apart in Middletown, but hadn’t seen each other in more than 50 years until the Middletown Village Reunion in Hoffer Park on Saturday.

They …

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‘Not just a black neighborhood’; Middletown’s African-American community reunites, reminisces

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Owen Hannah and Carl Brookins grew up a few doors apart in Middletown, but hadn’t seen each other in more than 50 years until the Middletown Village Reunion in Hoffer Park on Saturday.

They recalled summers filled with bike riding, swimming and fishing, and skinny-dipping in the Swatara Creek along an unauthorized beach behind the warehouses near Hoffer Park.

“I’d come home with bloodshot eyes (from swimming),” Hannah said. “My mom would say, ‘Where were you at?’”

Back then most of the African-American community in Middletown lived in “The Village,” on Market, Lawrence, Lincoln and Grant streets and on Witherspoon and Russell avenues.

The railroad tracks running from Philadelphia to Harrisburg “was the line of demarcation,” Hannah said, separating where the blacks lived from where the whites lived in Middletown.

But also on the black side of the tracks were the “River Rats,” mostly white people who lived along the Susquehanna River.

“Those are badges that we all wore, and we liked that because it did identify us as being from some place,” Hannah said.

Brookins graduated from Middletown Area High School in 1966, was drafted into the Army and served in the Vietnam War. He went to Texas and became a minister and now lives in Corpus Christi.

Hannah, two years younger at 69, was a member of the 1968 Middletown Area High School basketball team that won the Class B state championship.

He earned a baseball scholarship at California University of Pennsylvania, from where the coach of that 1968 Middletown team, Casper Voithofer, had come.

He was a referee for college basketball games for 30 years, all over the country including the Big Ten.

Hannah came back to Middletown, and his kids graduated from Middletown.

Bringing people such as Hannah and Brookins together after so many years was the vision of Florence Abdullah, the pastor of Grace and Mercy Church on Ann Street.

Abdullah, who grew up in a house on Russell Avenue and South Wood Street, put together a committee that held the first Middletown Village Reunion in 2018.

Brookins couldn’t make that first reunion but wanted to make it this time. Middletown is his birthplace and he still has family here.

“It’s an awfully long time. Thank God we’re still alive,” Brookins said.

Brookins hadn’t come the farthest. One former member of The Village came the whole way from the Philippines to be at the reunion.

Jessie “Skip” Williams didn’t come from far at all — he now lives in Harrisburg. But a lot of his family still lives in Middletown.

“There were so many good things about where we grew up,” said Williams, now 66.

It was a time of upheaval — of the civil rights movement, the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., and of Robert Kennedy.

But Middletown was different, a place of relative calm, or as Williams put, of “innocence.”

“This was a place where regardless of what your position was, we were all able to live civilly with each other,” Williams said. “That was something I appreciated about not only the people in my neighborhood, but of people in the town in general. I always felt like this was a great town.”

There were three African-American churches in Middletown — Ebenezer African Methodist Episcopal, still active and located on Market Street; Zion Primitive Baptist on Catherine Street; and Second Baptist on Lincoln, said Emma Pettis, who grew up Emma Holton, first on Russell Avenue and then the corner of Market and Wood.

The three congregations all supported one another, especially during Christmastime. Everyone got dressed up and went to the services of all three churches.

“We knew everyone in our neighborhood. If your parents weren’t home, your next-door neighbor looked out for you. It was just a connection, that close bond to each other,” Pettis said. “It was not just a black neighborhood.Our neighbor could be someone of a different race, but we still got along.”

Pettis graduated from Middletown in 1963 and worked for the Pennsylvania Liquor Control Board for 38 years. She moved to Lower Swatara in 1995 “but to me the borough of Middletown is still my home” and she is still a member of Ebenezer.

A big part of Abdullah’s vision is that the reunion pay tribute to “the generals,” the folks 80 years and older who raised the families of The Village.

Doris Anderson, 94, works out in the gym three days a week. She lives in a house on South Wood Street, across the street from where she grew up.

After working 40 years for the federal government at military installations in the region, Anderson became a nurse.

By the time she retired from that, she was 90.

“It’s a blessing for her to be around to see this,” said her son, Ron, who accompanied Doris to the reunion. “A lot of her other comrades are no longer here. To give back the respect of the ones that raised us in the manner that we are today, that means a lot.”

Another general, Leroy I. Jefferies Jr., at age 85 is head deacon at Zion Primitive Baptist, which has about 40 active members.

“We keep things moving,” said Jefferies, who served three years in Korea after being drafted in the Army, and then spent another 37 years in the Reserves and National Guard before retiring from the military as a master sergeant.

He worked at the former Olmsted Air Force Base for more than 20 years until the base closed. Jefferies got a job with Hershey Foods, where he stayed about 13 years.

“It means a lot to me … it gives me joy in my life,” Jefferies said of he and the other generals being honored at Saturday’s reunion. “I appreciate what they are doing.”