A year of exhibits highlights Black stories in York County's history
Ophelia Chambliss spent two years conducting interviews and piecing together photographs that tell the stories of Black residents in York County throughout the decades.
Her efforts are part of a larger series of exhibits at the York County History Center this year, inviting communities of color to connect with their history and learn about those who came before them.
"I saw the history center as one of those hidden gems," Chambliss said. "It's an opportunity for communities of color to capture and save their story in a place where their children can go back to."
Both virtual and in-person exhibits connect with the center's theme, Breaking Barriers.
An interactive map showcasing locations in York County essential to the Underground Railroad, which debuted during Black History Month in February, kicked off the year of presentations, said Nicole Smith, the center's director of library and archives.
"We want people to come in considering their own stories and history," Smith said. "It makes the exhibit more interactive for people."
Locations in Hanover, Shrewsbury Township and Fawn Grove as well as York City and the Wrightsville area dot a virtual map with detailed descriptions of how each of the locations assisted slaves seeking freedom and important historical figures who made it possible.
"The thing that struck me was just how important York County was as a whole, with our location being right along the Maryland border for freedom seekers looking to escape slavery," Smith said.
The Underground Railroad exhibit can be viewed online at www.yorkhistorycenter.org/.
Later in the year, the center will prepare two in-person exhibits. These exhibits were initially meant to debut in 2020 but were delayed due to the COVID-19 pandemic. The history center plans to reopen its sites to the public on April 1.
A rare copy of the Emancipation Proclamation signed by Abraham Lincoln will be available for viewing starting May 7.
Chambliss' project, a timeline outlining the history of Black residents in York County, will debut on June 19 — more commonly referred to as Juneteenth and a celebration of the day slaves in Texas learned that they had been freed.
Throughout her research, Chambliss has conducted around 30 interviews and gathered visual media to tell the stories of York's Black community.
"A lot of Black families don't have a lot of images," Chambliss said, "so what's going to happen to all of these stories?"
Chambliss said she hopes to preserve knowledge and stories that would otherwise be lost.
One story in particular that stuck with her was a conversation she had with an elderly Black man who told her about a time he attended grammar school and met a man from Africa for the first time.
"He could not figure out why this Black man was from this different place, he had not been taught about Africa and that's where we're from originally," Chambliss said. "He remembers that to this day, being so surprised."
Another aspect of the timeline project that was rewarding for Chambliss was collecting photographs and being able to attach names to the faces.
At first, families she spoke with were worried that if they turned over their photos they would never see them again. To remedy these fears, the York County History Center instead scanned images provided to them and then sent them back to the owners.
Though there's no official theme for the timeline, Chambliss said she aims to put York County's history into context of Black residents living there too.
"While things were happening in the standard narrative in York's history, Black folks were doing the same thing in their own neighborhoods," Chambliss said. "I would hope people realize they are closer than they think. The differences are much smaller, and they have more in common than they realize."
— Reach Tina Locurto at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter at @tina_locurto.