‘There’s so much beauty in being Black from Scranton’: Meet the historian who’s now an advocate for her community

By: - July 5, 2020 7:20 am

Glynis Johns (submitted photo)

(*Updated, 7/5/20 at 8:20 a.m.: This story has been updated to correct the spelling of Louise Tanner Brown’s last name. It is not hyphenated.)

SCRANTON, Pa. — Several hundred people surrounded the Gazebo in Nay Aug Park last month for Scranton’s first Juneteenth Jubilee. 

They heard several local Black activists and allies speak, including Black Scranton Project founder Glynis Johns and U.S. Sen. Bob Casey, D-Pa. 

“Can you hear me,” Johns asked, at the beginning of the event she organized.

The park is more than 120 years old. Home to a public pool, museum, gorge, walking trails, playgrounds and gathering areas, it’s a popular institution in the region. Over the years it has been held an amusement park, a zoo, and was even seen in the 1982 film “That Championship Season,” starring Martin Sheen, Robert Mitchum and Paul Sorvino.

Johns’ recent work leading the Black Scranton Project is proving that there is another institution with just as strong and old roots in Scranton, even if it’s too often been ignored: the city’s Black community.

“There’s so much beauty in being Black from Scranton that people just don’t know,” Johns said.

Johns’ work is culminating in an organization that highlights Scranton’s past, and offers its current citizens a place to focus their work. 

Johns didn’t plan to become a local historian. History class bored her. She didn’t see anything relatable in her classes. At home, she’d learn about civil rights heroes. Instead, when she was younger, she thought about becoming a doctor. Then she got to college and really enjoyed sociology. 

She did what a lot of smart, local youths do as she moved on with her academic career. She left her hometown with no intention of looking back.  

“Moved to New York and said I was never going to come back,” she said. “Felt like the city didn’t do anything for me.”

Then something happened as she worked on her master’s degree. She was researching a project on race and ethnicity in Scranton. 

She kept researching, finding new things that  she was never taught. As she sifted through old newspaper archives, documents and historical ephemera, she discovered a part of her hometown that people didn’t know. And they needed to know. 

Scranton, she discovered, had a fascinating history of Black residents. It’s a history that runs up to current times. After all, John Legend honed his musical and leadership skills as a music director for several years at Bethel AME in downtown Scranton.  

“I was so invested in sharing the stories and rebuilding a community,” she said.

She sees so many echoes today of the events of the past.

She can tell you about protests that happened as the nation prepared for the census in the late 1890s. 

At the time, there was nothing on the census that identified African-American men who were eligible to vote. The local community needed to be counted in the census. So they rallied around the cause. She found newspaper articles covering the work the people did. 

“They were a couple decades out of slavery,” Johns says. Her research showed that more than 200 Black men in Lackawanna County would have been eligible to vote at that time.

As she learned about those events, she began talking about the upcoming census, pushing people to register and make sure they’re counted. 

“For me, that was powerful,” she said of the work people did 120 years ago. “They worked so hard, not knowing what that would mean in 2020.”

She can even go further than that, explaining Scranton’s role in the Underground Railroad. 

Johns can tell you about how the community was divided after the Fugitive Slave Act. Some residents would help the local free Black Americans while others would help the bounty hunters that arrived in the region.

“Waverly (a small town a few miles north of Scranton) had a small, free Black population, called Colored Hill on Carbondale Road,” she explains. 

One of the projects she hopes to tackle is identifying local safe houses that were used to shelter those who were escaping slavery.

She’s found heroes in the pages of the past, too.

*Louise Tanner Brown was a business woman and education advocate. In 1926, she inherited her husband’s trucking business. Tanner Brown was featured in W.E.B. DuBois’ magazine “The Crisis.”

But it is also hard to see so much of the history erased over the years. Students in schools would learn about the Irish, Italians and Polish, while the connections go the Underground Railroad were overlooked. 

“There was an entire portion of the community that was literally here,” Johns said. “A tight-knit Black community. They were able to do things that they weren’t able to do in other places.”

She lists Black-owned businesses over the years, including the Newport Hotel, which stood on the 300 block of Center Street in Scranton.

But almost all of those buildings are gone, some turned into parking lots.

Johns’ work isn’t just about the past. Though it’s rooted there, she’s got her eye on the future.

She wants to get some of this information into the schools and in front of students.

“When you tell kids that this city is not here for you,” she said, “you’re erasing them and making them feel that this city is not for them.“

Students need to be able to see themselves in the city. 

That’s why she wants the Black Scranton Project to be more than history. The non-profit is working on getting a headquarters. She hopes it will be a place where the local community can gather and coordinate. People will be able to address issues.

As protests filled streets in cities and towns large and small across the nation, people kept asking Johns what the group would do. 

Meanwhile, she was working with the Scranton Mayor Paige Cognetti, Police Chief Department, and leaders in the city school district to address issues.

“People don’t see that side of activism,” she said.

As busy as she was, she went to work.

With less than 10 days to prepare, she coordinated the Juneteenth Jubilee, which featured voting registration, speakers, free ice cream, and more. She wanted it to be a fun occasion.

“Joy is a protest. Celebrating Juneteenth is a protest,” Johns said. “We organized that in eight days so I can only imagine what it will be like when we are past COVID.”

Robert McLoud, one of the speakers at the rally, talked about the importance of Johns’ work.

“It’s very needed, especially during this time right now,” he said. “There’s nothing else like it. It’s about bringing the black community together.” 

People took notice. They can definitely hear Glynis Johns now.

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Patrick Abdalla
Patrick Abdalla

Correspondent Patrick Abdalla covers northeastern Pennsylvania for the Pennsylvania Capital-Star. Follow him on Twitter @PaddyAbs.