Underground Railroad had a prominent site in York, Pennsylvania
William C. Goodridge was a former slave who became one of the most prominent businessmen in York, just 20 miles from the Mason-Dixon Line.
John Buffone, firstname.lastname@example.org
Actor Sidney Poitier’s recent death made me think about William C. Goodridge, the enslaved Maryland youngster who became a leading York businessman in the 1800s.
The Poitier-Goodridge connection came from a decade-ago conversation with the YDR’s Scott Fisher after he edited a column about Goodridge that I had written.
Scott commented that the Goodridge story, filled with so many risks, challenges and successes, would make a great Hollywood movie script.
That prompted me to write about actors who could portray Goodridge, and Poitier came to mind.
In 2002, Poitier had walked the streets of York. He was here for a Junior League of York performance and liked what he saw in the city. He stayed for three days, touring York and meeting with folks.
“He was a classy, talented, Oscar award winning actor and a true gentleman,” Karen Simon Watson of the Junior League wrote on Facebook after Poitier’s death. “… A life well lived indeed.”
Goodridge’s life similarly was one of pathfinding, and Poitier, the Hollywood pioneer, would have portrayed him well.
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A decade later, the idea of a Goodridge movie holds well, as interest around his life, times and his accomplished family continues to grow.
Today, the Goodridges’ longtime East Philadelphia Street home hosts a growing museum with exhibits explaining the family’s best-known legacy as Underground Railroad operators. Its main feature is a dirt cellar, a hiding place for freedom seekers.
The museum is operated by Crispus Attucks Community Center and managed by Kelly Summerford, a living historian who effectively and winsomely interprets William Goodridge.
In a well-lighted upstairs room, a replica pre-Civil War photographic studio is exhibited in space used by pioneering photographer Glenalvin J. Goodridge, the eldest son. The Smithsonian has underscored Glenalvin Goodridge’s contribution to early American photography and has purchased pieces of his work from collector Larry West.
With this heightened interest, it is time to put up different scenes that a scriptwriter in Hollywood could use to present Goodridge’s life.
William Goodridge was born enslaved on a Maryland farm in 1806. Some say the C. in his name stands for Carroll, as in the landmark Maryland family. It’s believed his father was a Carroll or a prominent Baltimore physician.
He came to Pennsylvania as a youngster, apprenticed as a tanner and gained his freedom at age 16. He trained as a barber and opened a business in 1824, the first of numerous Goodridge businesses highlighted by an emporium on York’s square housing an array of retail enterprises.
He married Evalina Wallace Goodridge in 1827 and their first child, Glenalvin, was born in 1829. By all accounts, Evalina Goodridge, known as Emily, was a full partner in her family’s business ventures.
Goodridge proved to be an entrepreneur with good ideas and a keen marketing sense.
So he sold oil for baldness, offered paid tours of a Christmas tree in his home and rented stoves. He offered, “in a perfectly private situation,” a place to bathe, with hot or cold water.
At one point in the late 1840s, his building on York’s Centre Square was the tallest in York at five stories.
Another businessman, John Hartman, would not let that stand, building a six-story structure with the vow that no Black man should own the highest building in town. As a mark of Goodridge resilience, William and Emily’s family and Hartman shared business interests.
When you sum it up, it was rare for a Black family to keep its businesses running in a predominantly white Pennsylvania town for four decades in the 1800s.
As in many long-running businesses, Goodridge enterprises hit a tough financial stretch — right before the Civil War. That led to a series of judgments against his properties.
Goodridge family biographer John V. Jezierski suggested some of these financial reversals came because the realistic Emily, who died in 1852, was not there to check Goodridge’s entrepreneurship.
But he kept out a shingle until after the Civil War, when he departed York for Michigan and Minneapolis.
Goodridge’s interests included a rail line with 13 cars, used to transport enslaved people from the South to freedom east of the Susquehanna River.
His East Philadelphia Street home with its hand-dug basement is a short distance from the railroad. So Goodridge was an operator on the loose-knit series of safe houses known as the Underground Railroad, and he used an actual railroad as part of his network.
Goodridge’s ventures gained support from David E. Small and other white businessmen. This highlights one of a host of questions that await an answer. Small, later the namesake of the Black Grand Army of the Republic York chapter, was a maker of railroad cars. Could his firm have constructed the hidden compartments in Goodridge’s cars used to hide freedom seekers?
Harpers Ferry tie
Osborne Perry Anderson, a free African American and one of John Brown’s raiders, made his escape from Harpers Ferry in 1859.
He traveled through Franklin County in Pennsylvania and worked his way to York where a good Samaritan gave him refuge and sent him to freedom in Canada. Some historians believe former-slave-turned-businessman William C. Goodridge was that helpful soul.
Goodridge certainly was known outside of York and likely known to Anderson. As an example of Goodridge’s national profile, Frederick Douglass’ newspaper in Rochester, New York, told about Goodridge’s trip to Canada with other successful Black businessmen in 1853.
The Goodridge sons
in his Goodridge family biography, “Enterprising Images,” Jezierski placed a focus on Goodridge’s three sons, Glenalvin, Wallace and William O.
“Glenalvin, Wallace and William Goodridge were among only a few African Americans who were able to experiment with photography soon after the technology became available,” Jezierski wrote.
It was Glenalvin’s work, starting in 1847, that caught the Smithsonian’s attention, along with elite peers James P. Ball and Augustus Washington.
Glenalvin advertised his specialty in daguerreotypes and ambrotypes as family groups, single portraits, scenery and, according to the custom of the day, dead people.
Glenalvin Goodridge, also a teacher in the Black school in York, was convicted of rape in an incident that allegedly occurred in his York photo studio in the Hartman building in 1862.
He was sentenced to serve five years in Eastern State Penitentiary in Philadelphia.
His father successfully rallied bipartisan forces in York to appeal to Gov. Andrew G. Curtin for a pardon. That was no little accomplishment in the middle of a divisive Civil War and points to the respect the community held for Goodridge and his family.
Charles Bressler’s letter to Curtin helped spring Glenalvin Goodridge from detention. The letter asserted that Goodridge had two marks against him: He was a Republican (the minority party in York County) and Black. As part of Glenalvin’s pardon deal, he was ordered to leave the state.
William likely accompanied a freed Glenalvin, then suffering from tuberculosis, north to East Saginaw, Michigan, where Wallace and William O., had reestablished a photo studio. The disease is believed to have come from his time in prison. But experts in early photography have wondered if his lungs were weakened from chemical fumes in the early photographic processes.
Tragically, Glenalvin died in 1867. And William C. Goodridge died in Minneapolis – the town where his daughter, Emily Grey Goodridge, was living – in 1873.
The trumped-up rape charge cost York a pioneering photographer and an elite family — at least for 30 years, as we shall see.
The two surviving Goodridge sons in East Saginaw solidified the family’s legacy as pioneering American photographers.
Still, the family could not escape adversity. In 1890, William O. died from either kidney disease or blood poisoning. Jezierski believed the two might be related. The blood poisoning might have come from a cut in the studio combined with chemicals in the photo process.
Wallace continued on until 1922, ending almost 75 years the family was involved in photography.
“The Goodridge studio deserves our attention because the Goodridges were African Americans,” he wrote, “but even more so because the studio open during the profession’s first decade and remained … successful into the next century.”
Meanwhile, members of the Goodridge family returned to York in 1891. Glenalvin’s son, Glenalvin J. Goodridge Jr., for example, was active in Faith Presbyterian Church.
And like his grandfather, he was a barber.
Goodridge story continues
When Poitier was in York in 2002, he became aware that Karen Simon Watson’s 10-year-old son was ill and could not meet the actor, as planned.
Poitier asked to speak to Nicolas and called Watson’s home to inquire how he was doing.
“My son who is 31, and stationed in Ft Bragg NC still remembers that conversation!” Watson wrote.
By all accounts, William C. and Evalina Goodridge had the same graciousness.
Jezierski credits the Goodridge’s “enterprise and energy” with constructing the foundation that their sons built on to shape early photography in America.
The Goodridge story has endured for generations because it shows the purpose and determination of this 19th-century family.
At times, powers in York have attempted to subdue its telling; the late historian Georg Sheets says he bucked against such pressure in his book “To the Setting of the Sun.”
Other times, some have claimed that resources have been devoted to Goodridge study to the detriment of telling the achievements of other Black luminaries. Some also claim that some county residents have chosen promotion of the Goodridge story as a veneer to hide racial prejudice.
However, in addition to Goodridge research, study of the life and times of the Black community in the county has been widening and deepening for the past 35 years.
So there are layers of Goodridge stories for Hollywood to tell. Or perhaps it’s a story for York-based C&P Media Co. to pilot or the York County Film Industry Advocates to take on.
Likely, now that the Smithsonian is investing dollars and research into Glenalvin Goodridge’s work, the Goodridge story will gain the national prominence it deserves.
That aside – because why do we really need national validation? — the Goodridge family’s accomplishments continue to inform and inspire. Despite adversity, the family had the verve and vigor that we all could emulate
Years ago, Carol Kauffman, instrumental in building up the Goodridge Freedom Center, provided this succinct summary of William Goodridge and his family: “Goodridge is just one of the coolest guys you’d ever want to learn about.”
Sources and references: John V. Jezierski’s “Enterprising Images;” Scott Mingus’ “Guiding Lights” and “The Ground Swallowed Them Up”; and Friends of Lebanon Cemetery research.
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