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Centre Daily Times June 15 2005

Scout explores local black history

"There was a hidden history in Bellefonte, and Jonathan Lumley-Sapanski was intent on discovering it.

The 18-year-old lifelong resident's quest began when he was standing in line for a movie at the Garman Theatre Opera House in downtown Bellefonte.

Perusing the brochure offerings, he stumbled on Daniel Clemson's, which offered information about Motown sensations The Mills Brothers and other tidbits of black history in Bellefonte.

Intrigued, Lumley-Sapanski wanted to know more. He found the information scattered across several sources.

So, the Bellefonte High School student, who graduated Friday, made compiling Bellefonte's black history his Eagle Scout project.

It took Lumley-Sapanski the better part of a year to access it all, reaching out to sources as varied as Bellefonte school board member Justin Houser, the Quaker Meeting House in State College, libraries and even Clemson himself.

What Lumley-Sapanski found amazed him.

"I go to school every day, and we are not diverse," he said. "To hear that at one time we had a large African-American population, it's amazing."

Lumley-Sapanski discovered that the Bellefonte Area School District was first in the state to desegregate its schools, more than 80 years before 1954's Brown vs. Board of Education decision made the practice mandatory.

The argument, he said, was made by the grandfather of the Mills brothers, who told the school board that black children were receiving an inferior education at their segregated schools.

A year after that testimony, the board voted to desegregate the district.

In town, there was an black barber shop. An African Methodist Episcopal church still sits on Halfmoon Hill. And the black population in the town, he said, was sizable.

Lumley-Sapanski said he also discovered that some of the families whose roots reach deep into Bellefonte's past were involved in the Underground Railroad.

Families such as the Benners, Lynns and Curtins hid runaway slaves in their homes as they ventured north. Women used quilts to signal when wagons would pick up the next transport or what trails to take, he said.

"And there's still a lot of stuff that's unknown," he said.

For instance, he said, many of the people who assisted with the railroad were the wives of wealthy men. They stayed home during the day, helped slaves on their way to freedom and may have never told their husbands of their involvement.

Lumley-Sapanski, who received his Eagle Scout designation June 5, took all this information and created a PowerPoint presentation, which he showed to middle schools and community groups around the county. Now that he has completed his project, it will be given to the Bellefonte Area School District, where his father serves as president of the school board, to be placed in libraries for future reference.

"I was not a history buff at all," Lumley-Sapanski said. "But (the project) really opens your eyes to what's out there. It makes you wonder what else is out there that you don't know."

Lara Brenckle can be reached at 235-3902"

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15 June 2005

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