While it took Great Barrington, Massachusetts, a long time to embrace fully the legacy of native-born son W.E.B. DuBois, a group of people has been working for years to have the neighboring city of Pittsfield embrace its adopted son, the Reverend Samuel Harrison.
The Samuel Harrison Society was organized in 2004 by a group of Berkshire County men and women. This summer its efforts in making all aware of those African-American giants who lived among us will bear fruit with the cutting of the ribbon on the restored former home of the Civil War pastor and chaplain to the famed 54th Massachusetts Regiment. Reverend Harrison’s great-granddaughter, Ruth Edmonds Hill, donated the house to the society.
Probably not as widely known as his South County brother, Reverend Harrison still put his mark on an era with his work for equality, particularly in the area of equal pay for soldiers of color.
Born into slavery in 1818, Reverend Harrison came to Pittsfield in 1850 to take the pulpit of the Second Congregational Church. He was born in Philadelphia, a city that came to the conclusion that slavery was an abomination earlier than most, and Samuel Harrison and his mother were freed when he was three years old. At the age of 17, he felt the call to the ministry; with the help of famed abolitionist Gerrit Smith,
he was able to attend Western Reserve Academy in Ohio. Upon graduation at the age of 22, he married his childhood sweetheart; the couple moved to New Jersey, where Samuel was able to work while preparing for the ministry with the Congregational Church. Ten years later he would accept the call from the newly formed Second Congregational Church in Pittsfield.
Two days before the famed and tragic assault on Fort Wagner in South Carolina by the Massachusetts 54th Regiment under Robert Gould Shaw, Samuel had been recommended to Colonel Shaw by fellow clergy and Governor Andrews of Massachusetts to be the regiment’s chaplain. After Shaw and half of his regiment were killed at Fort Wagner, Governor Andrews came to Lenox to visit Shaw’s widow; the couple had made their home at what is now called Ventfort Hall and is a museum dedicated to the Gilded Age.
Samuel was commissioned the first chaplain of the 54th Regiment at Morris Island, South Carolina. While he wrote that he was treated with the same respect as chaplains of a “fairer hue,” he was disabused of his standing when payday came and neither he nor the African-American soldiers received pay equal to that of the white chaplains and soldiers. Having left his wife, Ellen, and six children plus a mortgage and household bills in Pittsfield, the situation was intolerable for him. As months went by and appeals were made unsuccessfully, he found himself becoming sick and resigned the chaplaincy.
Direct appeals to President Lincoln were eventually successful in gaining equal pay for equal service under an appropriations bill that was retroactive. It was suggested to Samuel that if not for his victimization vis a vis equal pay, the issue would not have come forth and eventually benefited the 180,000 black soldiers serving in the Union armies.
After his medical discharge, Samuel served at a Congregational church in Springfield, Massachusetts, before returning to Pittsfield in 1872. He remained as pastor of the Second Congregational church until his death in 1900.
The Berkshire Athenaeum in Pittsfield holds the biography of the Reverend Samuel Harrison as well as other documents and sermons. As well, the Library of Congress contains papers related to the battle for equal pay in the Abraham Lincoln papers (1850-1865).
The Samuel Harrison Society’s web site is at http://samuelharrison.org/biography.html