Latest in a series of posts on Bethlehem Moments
Bethlehem Moment 15
November 19, 2019
1609 Stanford Rd.
Head of the Adult Services Department
Bethlehem Area Public Library
Bethlehem Moment: 1860
While working on an oral history project titled “Voices from the African Diaspora: The Black Experience of Bethlehem Pa.,” it was essential that I embed myself in the community. Though a newcomer, I became part of the local African American community and gained two aunts. They shared many voices/stories. This essay is a taste of some of the takeaway that has enriched the village of Bethlehem 159 years since the arrival in 1860 of Hiram Bradley, who is said to be the first known Black/Negro man from Virginia.
The families that came during and after the Civil War built churches and organizations to keep themselves grounded. Those that left their footprints in the sands of time in Bethlehem are the Bradleys, Smiths, Grimes’s, Lees, Enixs’s, Tarboros, Butts’, Williams’s, Olivers, Hargroves, Roberts’s, Hemmons. They came from such places as Virginia, North and South Carolina, Georgia, Washington DC., New Jersey, and even though I discovered countless stories, I will highlight here just three: J. F. Goodwin, who started the well known Goodwin Scholarship Fund; Bert Tarboro, who started the first Black baseball team; and Vivian Butts, the first Black female police officer.
Black/African American communities coming out of slavery to freedom instilled in their members the importance of education. Bethlehem’s Black population was no exception. Those who paved the way worked as domestic help, chauffeurs, or as laborers in the blast furnace at Bethlehem Steel. Therefore, instilling the importance of an excellent education was constant in their homes. The J. F. Goodwin Scholarship fund is a remembrance of this ideology and continues into the present day.
Dr. Goodwin founded the scholarship organization in 1936. Even though he resided in Reading most of his life, Bethlehem was his home. However, though he made numerous attempts, he was denied work as a doctor while living here, and he had to move to Reading to work in his profession. But these obstacles did not dampen Goodwin’s spirit. His experience of hardship trying to put himself through medical school and establish a practice instilled in him the need to start a scholarship fund for high school students heading off to colleges.
Another pillar in the African American community was Bert Tarboro. According to his daughter Vivian Hungerford, everyone in the neighborhood knew and respected her father. Their family home was always open to anyone, and everyone came and dined at their table. Tarboro began working for Bethlehem Steel in 1926 as a laborer and retired forty-six years later. He was a Deacon and Trustee at St. Paul Baptist Church and Master of the Wyoming Lodge #135, which was chartered in 1927. Tarboro and his family were heavily involved in teaching the youth how to play baseball. In 1961, he formed the Bethlehem Giants of the Blue Mountain Baseball League. The team and their families had picnics and took trips together, and everyone was welcome whether they could afford to attend or not. During one of the Bethlehem Giants banquets, baseball stars Jackie Robinson and Don Newcombe were guests of honor. Mrs. Hungerford notes that when the neighborhood, Blacks and Whites alike, found out that these African American heroes were both at Tarboro’s home, many came knocking at their door.
In 1964 Vivian Butts became the first Black female Police officer, working in the Juvenile Aid Division and retiring twenty-five years later as Sargent Butts. She was the wife of Raymond E. Butts and mother of two, Raymond Jr. and Sharon King. Mrs. Butts was very active in the community. She was involved in the NAACP, the J. F. Goodwin Scholarship, St. Paul Baptist Church, and other organizations. Her steadfast involvement in the city was widely recognized, and she was honored in 1987 for community service at an NAACP banquet at the Bethlehem Hotel.
The Bethlehem NAACP had formed under Theodore Dennis in 1946, one year after Civil Rights activist Roy Wilkins visited the Lehigh Valley. The Bethlehem NAACP invited another prominent activist Ralph Abernathy to their Freedom Banquet in 1975. In his speech to about 350 attendees, Abernathy stated that “God is colorless.” Seventy-four years later, the organization is still active under the direction of Mrs. Esther M. Lee.
The discoveries I made about this small but vibrant African American community of 3.63% of the Bethlehem population at the time of 2000 U.S. Census are gems that must be known to all. What I have shared about this small community is only a ripple. However, if you continue to look, the ripples will go on and on. The families that came during the 1800s came willingly, unlike their mothers, fathers, brothers, and sisters who arrived on the shores of Virginia in 1619. Even though they were few in numbers, their sense of family and community are rooted in the earth of Bethlehem like an old oak tree.