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Black Bethlehem: An incomplete story

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Go to the Bethlehem Area Public Library (BAPL) and you will find hordes of books lining the shelves but what you won’t find among the many volumes is a detailed record of the black history of Bethlehem, PA.

Dr. Sholomo Levy, associate professor of History, presented “A History of Black Bethlehem,” on October 25 in the David A. Reed Community Room of NCC’s Bethlehem campus.

Levy led a panel discussing what is known from one piece of the historical puzzle and the plans to expand the grasp of our knowledge for the future.

Currently, all the documents that exist relate back to the early history of the black Moravians but there is little additional information.

“There is a missing link pertaining to that part of history,” BAPL Director of Adult Services, Rayah Levy said.

In order to unravel some of the mystery, Levy is conducting an enormous undertaking. She started a project titled, “Voices from the Black Diaspora: The Black Experience in Bethlehem.” Partnering with BAPL, Northampton Community College, Lehigh University, Moravian College, the NAACP, and residents of Bethlehem, she will be gathering information to record the untold stories.

The project was inspired by an experience Levy had at BAPL when two young students asked for assistance in finding reference material on Bethlehem’s black history. When they were unable to come up with any substantial information, Levy decided to take action.

“We don’t want another time to come when students come to look for information and they leave empty-handed,” Levy said.

Levy will work with archivists, museum curators, and librarians to piece together any available documents and recordings. Another important aspect of the project will involve recording oral histories.

NAACP Bethlehem – Chapter President Ester Lee was born and raised in Bethlehem. She feels compelled to share the story of what growing up was like for her in the city.

“We went through school just fine. It was only after getting out of school that you realized there was no opportunities for you. Schwab made sure of that,” Lee said, referring to Charles Schwab, the chairman of Bethlehem Steel.

The Industrial Revolution was a time of economic prosperity and growth throughout our nation, but for the blacks of Bethlehem, there was major exclusion from the wealth. Nationwide the country was at its all-time lowest unemployment rate, yet over 30 percent of blacks experienced great difficulty in finding work.

History Professor Brian Alnutt explained that as black populations migrated north, Schwab wrote an announcement that there were no opportunities for blacks at his company, stating that they would not be comfortable because they would have no fellow comrades living in the city.

To this day economic equality is disproportionately high among the black community with twenty percent of the population living below the poverty line.

The history of blacks in Bethlehem is a narrative that belongs in our libraries. Future generations need to understand the weight of what could be lost if this information isn’t gathered.

As Mark Twain once said, “A public library is the most enduring of memorials, the trustiest monument for the preservation of an event or a name or an affection; for it is respected by wars and revolutions, and survives them.”

Contact rlevy@nullbapl.org if you would like to learn more about this project