Is it possible to find a Greater Pittston-themed Black History Month story without a Patience family connection?
Well, yes and no. The Patience family has been well chronicled in lectures, television appearances and several books by Juanita Patience Moss. Patience Moss grew up in West Pittston, graduating from the old West Pittston High School in 1950 and Bennett College in North Carolina.
In 1992, after she retired as a high school biology teacher in New Jersey, she moved to Virginia and launched a second career as an author. She has since published eight books. Her best-known book is about her father, Edgar, a well-known sculptor in Anthracite coal. Another book, “Created To Be Free,” tells the story of her great-grandfather Crowder Pacien, a slave who was freed from a sweet potato plantation in North Carolina during the Civil War and joined an all-white Union Army regiment. He was discharged at Harrisburg then made his way to West Pittston as a teamster and settled there, his name changed to Patience along the way.
By the time Patience Moss was growing up in West Pittston in the 1940s, there were but a handful of black families in the Greater Pittston area. Deeper into history that wasn’t the case.
In 1892, there were enough African-American families to start an African Methodist Episcopal Church in West Pittston. The Rev. Jon Gibbs was the first pastor.
The church was named St. Mark’s A.M.E. Church. In December 1907, St. Mark’s dedicated a new church building on a lot on Boston Avenue near Wyoming Avenue in West Pittston. The church had bought the lot for $3,200, paying $1,200 in cash and borrowing $2,000. The two-story church had an auditorium and a lecture room. The Rev. W.B. Anderson of the Pittsburgh District, of which St. Mark’s was a member, was the main speaker. He talked about A.M.E. history, explaining they church was founded in Philadelphia in 1787 with 15 members. By 1907, there was 6,000 pastors and 975,000 members.
The Greater Pittston African-Americans were active in politics and entertainment in the early part of the 20th Century.
In February 1903, the African-American Republicans met at Llewellyn’s Hall in West Pittston. The Republican club officers were Ruben Span, president; Walter Glover, vice president, and Robert Stevenson, treasurer. Some of the other members were J.R. Dooley, Mumford Chambers, Charles Moore, Henry Todd, Albert Andrews, Robert Morton, Spencer Calloway, Frank Johnson, Cushen Williams, Charles Coleman, Chester Jones and, no surprise, Harry Patience, the father of Harold and Edgar. The elder Harry, who was also the secretary of St. Mark’s, was the founder of the family coal carving business and he was often in the news. In September 1905, Patience mechanized his coal souvenir shop by installing “a new gas engine and shafting.”
In 1915, a dozen of his coal souvenirs were displayed at a church bazaar in Washington, D.C., by Agnes Wilson, daughter of United States Secretary of Labor W.B. Wilson, who was from Du Bois, Pennsylvania.
A popular entertainment among the African-Americans of the time was the game “cake walk.” Akin to musical chairs, in a cake walk game, players move in a circle to music around a jar. When the music stops the walker quickest to pull a slip of paper from the jar can win a cake. In 1903, a cake walk at the armory in West Pittston on Warren Street benefited the Black Diamond Lodge of the Odd Fellows. From the Gazette: “A troop of the best trained and smallest cake walkers from Binghamton, Williamsport, Scranton, Wilkes-Barre and Pittston will compete.” Music was by the Elite Orchestra.
The Pittston Gazette reported regularly on African-American house parties, bazaars, weddings, minstrels and sporting events. In May 1916, the Armstrongs, an all African-American baseball team, played the Annex Nine at the Philadelphia Avenue Diamond in West Pittston.
By 1915, the Gazette estimated there were 150 African-Americans living in West Pittston. In March 1917, St. Mark’s ran a bazaar and carnival to raise money to pay down the debt on the lot and church. The Ladies Aid and Willing Workers Societies of the church raised money, which was presented by Sister Queenie Wheeler, Sister Dianna Jones and Sister Susie Tillman.
By 1938, St. Mark’s was still going strong. A bazaar that year celebrated the first anniversary of a new parsonage and the success of the nine-year-old maintenance fund. Among the prominent West Pittston white people who were church benefactors were J. B. Jennings, John Kehoe and Roy Stauffer and J.A. Hitchner
While early 20th century African-Americans were segregated on Sundays, stories in the Gazette show African-Americans in West Pittston were not segregated by neighborhoods as they had homes all over the town, for example on Lacoe, Spring and Franklin streets and Luzerne, Wyoming, Montgomery and Tunkhannock avenues. Nor were they segregated at work. Though it’s not widely known, there were many African-American mine workers in the NEPA anthracite mines.
Christine Patterson, the niece of Alice Patterson Patience, Edgar’s wife, discovered the African-American connection to anthracite mining after a professor at Penn State Hazleton campus told her there were no black miners in NEPA. “Well, there had to be at least one,” she remembers saying, talking about her father, James Patterson. She has been documenting African-American anthracite mine workers since. African-American miners were overlooked in part because in most vintage anthracite photos miners and breaker boys are covered in black coal dust.
So what happened to the descendents of the Spans, Cuffs, Moores, Calloways, Glovers and other prominent African-American families in West Pittston?
They left, and A.M.E. church’s emphasis on education was a big reason why. As happened with many of their European immigrant counterparts, subsequent generations of African-American families left the area to go to college and find better economic opportunities.
Patience Moss is a good example.