Monday, October 06

PITTSFIELD — Charlotte Finn loves history as her background is in government and political science. The Pittsfield woman received the history lesson she was looking for yesterday afternoon during the inaugural tour of the Samuel Harrison Society. "I'm interested in African-American history, but knew very little about Reverend Harrison," Finn said.

She now knows more about Rev. Samuel Harrison after visiting the house he built 150 years ago.

The historic residence on Third Street — currently being restored by the Harrison Society — was the final stop of a 90-minute tour that focused on eight of the 19 points of interest of black history in Pittsfield. The sites are already part of the Upper Housatonic Valley African-American Heritage Trail in Berkshire County.

Tour guide Frances Jones-Sneed, history professor at the Massachusetts College of Liberal Arts in North Adams, told the two dozen urban hikers in attendance they were walking the downtown/ Morningside loop; one of the two minitrails the Harrison Society has carved out of the Heritage Trail.

The other is the West Side Loop, which has seven stops, including the Second Congregational Church at 50 Onota St. Harrison was pastor of the church at its original location on First Street in the late 1800s.

Jones-Sneed, a member of the Harrison Society's Board of Trustees, began the tour at 467 North St., where the Berkshire County Chapter of the NAACP had an office during the 1960s.

She then led the group to Persip Park at the corner of Columbus Avenue and North Street, dedicated to the Persip family in March of 1983.

"If your from Pittsfield you know who the Persips are," said Jones-Sneed as she spoke to group.

"I don't know who they are," replied one woman.

Jones-Sneed then began the Persip family history lesson focusing on brothers Alfred K. Persip and Charles A. Persip, who both served in World War I. The American Legion Post 68 on Wendell Avenue is named for Charles.

Gino Longo fondly remembered Persip, who was often at the Legion hall.

"He was always on the go and a very nice man," said Longo, who was a custodian in the early 1970s at the former headquarters of the Berkshire County Chapter of the Red Cross on Wendell Avenue. "He walked at a good pace as he was in good shape." Longo added.

Persip was 80 years old at the time. He died in 1982 at 90.

The tour continued at 137 North St., the site of the former Woolworth's store where the local NAACP protested the national chain's refusal in the 1960s to serve blacks at the lunch counters in their southern stores.

The next stop was Park Square where Sylvanus Grant was commissioned to remove a 300-year-old elm tree, where a plaque now memorializes its location.

"When city officials were looking for the best person to do the job, they were told Sylvanus Grant," said Jones-Sneed.

The tour moved to the Berkshire Athenaeum on Wendell Avenue which maintains the county's major local collection of black history literature, artifacts and other items.

A couple doors down is the Charles A. Persip American Legion Post 68, where Jones-Sneed continued Persip's biography.

"He always marched in the (Pittsfield) 4th of July parade," she said, noting how proud Persip was of his military service and background.

Persip was the grandson of Civil War veteran Charles Hamilton of the famous all black Massachusetts 54th Regiment, with Rev. Samuel Harrison serving as their army chaplain for several months.

The tour then hiked several blocks north to the now closed Rainbow Restaurant on First Street, where the Second Congregational Church first stood from 1846 until 1940. Harrison, who ministered briefly in Rhode Island, returned to Pittsfield to lead the church in 1872.

Finally, the well-informed urban hikers cut through the Pittsfield Common to reach 82 Third St., the Harrison homestead. Harrison Society board president Linda M. Tyer explained how the working class house is being restored and could be open to the public next summer.

"Each room will tell a different story about Reverend Harrison," said Tyer, Ward 2 City Councilor. "There will be a Civil War room and a cobbler room."

Tyer noted Harrison was a shoemaker to earn most of his family income as he received little pay as a minister.

Jones-Sneed hopes Harrison will be the symbol of black history in Pittsfield, just as W.E.B. DuBois is to Great Barrington and Elizabeth Freeman — "Mum Bett" is to Sheffield.

"We at the Samuel Harrison Society are working hard to publicize (Harrison's) legacy," said Jones-Sneed.