Henry Spradley’s great-great-great-great granddaughters — the youngest of whom is 2 years old — may not have fully understood what was happening in front of the Old West building on the Dickinson College campus Saturday, but Jocelyn Rawls did.
“Now they can talk to their kids about Grandpap Spradley because we weren’t able to. We did not know of him,” said Rawls, Spradley’s great-great-great granddaughter who accompanied the young children to the ceremony.
The family was among the more than 50 descendants of Henry Spradley and Robert Young to attend the ceremony officially renaming a residence hall on the Dickinson College campus in honor of the two men who served as janitors on the campus.
A gate along North West Street was named in honor of Noah and Carrie Pinkney, who were popular food sellers on campus. Though the Pinkneys had no children of their own, they were represented at the ceremony by members of Bethel AME Church where the couple had been longtime members.
Cooper Hall, a residence hall named for a scientist who taught briefly at the college before becoming a pro-slavery leader in South Carolina, will now be known as Spradley-Young Hall. East College Gate will be changed to Pinkney Gate.
Spradley, Young and the Pinkneys were all former slaves who worked on campus.
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Young’s great-grandson, Al Gilbert, who traveled to the ceremony from California, wished that his father, who died last year at the age of 96, would have survived to see the day. As he looked forward to learning more about his great-grandfather, he recognized the importance of remembering the contributions of those who have gone before.
“It’s incredibly important from the standpoint that it’s hard for young people like my son and other people to recognize the rich history of the past,” he said. “Their contributions were what made it possible for me to become the president and CEO of a corporation.”
“This is the culmination of more than three years of work by dozens of faculty, staff and students,” said Matthew Pinsker. “It’s a really special occasion and we’re going to do our best to try to honor these figures in the presence of their descendants.”
Pinsker, director of the House Divided Project and lead researcher of the Dickinson & Slavery initiative, opened and closed the ceremony that included presentations from students on the lives of those being honored (see related article) as well as remarks from interim college president John E. Jones III.
“Today is a celebration that is long overdue,” Jones said “We must continue to face and acknowledge our true history. Embrace it. Ask the tough questions regardless of where they might lead and, above all, continue to lift up the stories of remarkable Dickinsonians for their courage and their accomplishments.”
Jones recounted the path to the renaming ceremony, recalling the initial research in Pinsker’s American Slavery class in the fall of 2017 that saw students comb through college archives to uncover the college’s ties to both slavery and anti-slavery movements.
“Those initial students and those who followed confronted our past and lifted up stories that needed – actually cried out to be told,” he said.
The research led to the Dickinson & Slavery website that launched in fall 2018, the opening of the permanent exhibit in the House Divided studio in spring 2019 and the publication of the Dickinson & Slavery report that was endorsed by a series of campus committees and, ultimately, the Board of Trustees in May 2020.
In addition to the building and the gate already renamed, the report called for research into further opportunities for renaming buildings and scholarships.
“I am committed as president of Dickinson College to completing this final aspect of the recommendations in the coming year so that we can take advantage of any additional identified opportunities to create greater diversity in our campus,” Jones said.
Senior Amanda Sowah, who worked on research with the House Divided project, said efforts need to continue to bring diversity and inclusivity to the college and to recognize those who have made Dickinson what it is today.
“We have to start from somewhere. Even though this may not be where some people might think we need to be, I think it’s important that in some way, in some form we do the best we can and advocate for more as we go along,” she said.
On Saturday, though, the ceremony and work already done by the House Divided project added much-desired context to the stories of the Young, Spradley and Pinkney families.
Rawls said her family only learned of Henry Spradley last year when a family member made a connection on Ancestry.com, and there’s a lot they still don’t know about him — like where he was enslaved and how he came to the area.
“But, we do know what he did here in Carlisle so that’s given us a lot of information about him. We want to find out more,” Rawls said.
The men and woman honored Saturday overcame obstacles before and even after they were freed. They persevered and it’s important to know their stories, Pinsker said.
“These are not just names on a gate or on a building. They’re supposed to be stories that can inspire us,” Pinsker said.
Photos: Dickinson College honors history of enslaved people during building renaming ceremony
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