1913 - 1953
—Briggs Street —
Bethel During the World Wars
When the Commonwealth purchased the State Street Church to extend the Capitol Complex, church leaders—Mr. C. Sylvester Jackson and his wife—purchased a lot on Briggs Street at Ash Avenue for a new sanctuary. Bishop Evans Tyre officiated at the laying of the cornerstone in December 1913. Less than a year later, a fire partially destroyed the church, but it was repaired and services continued. This building served the Bethel AME congregation until 1953 when the Park Extension Program was enlarged again.
This was the sanctuary that served Bethel AME congregation during the two world wars. With no church records and few members who can tell their stories—or those of ancestors—the men and women from Bethel AME Church who served in the wars lie silent.
Against the backdrop of these two world wars, significant changes were taking place—the Roaring Twenties, Prohibition, and migrations of Black citizens from other parts of the United States. Harrisburg and Bethel Church became a gathering place for all African Americans.
Private John Feather, World War I Veteran
Private John Feather, along with his brothers Darwin and Henry, served in World War I. From a family of seven daughters and five sons,
Feather gave up a job in a local silk mill to enlist in the army.
In December 1918, the postman delivered a letter postmarked Le Mont-Dore, France, to Rachel Feather of 314 New St., just off Lehman St. on the north side of Lebanon. Pvt. Feather's letter to his mother described his Army experience from basic training to the battlefields of France. The Lebanon Daily News published the letter on January 1, 1919. Below is an excerpt:
Nov. 9, 1918
I have plenty of time this morning so I thought I would write you a copy of my diary.
Starting: Sept. 10, 1917 — Co. H 4th
Regiment, left Lebanon, Pa., for training camp at Augusta, Ga. Arrived at Wheeless station at 1:30 a.m. September 13. Detained there and hiked to Camp Hancock."
The Women of Bethel
Women hold a pivotal role in the Bethel AME Church. Endowed with the spirit of fellowship, women served as Deaconesses, Sunday School leaders and role models for the youth of the congregation. Throughout the city of Harrisburg, the women of Bethel AME Church demonstrated their belief in charity and civic responsibility by serving as missionaries, community organizers and school teachers.
When the church was founded in 1834, the women of Bethel might
have been free, they did not enjoy the privileges of citizens because they could not yet vote. IT would be almost one hundred years—1920—before women would join men at the voting box. In the absence of these rights, the Bethel women continued to work for the improvement of the church and the elevation of the parishioners by holding fund raisers and tending to the sick and shut-in.
As the men of the congregation went off to war, Bethel women helped care for the families left at home and supported the soldiers by sending letters and packages. They extended their outreach to include aid to the community.
Jessie Matthews Vann
The daughters of a U.S. Colored Troops veteran, Jessie Ellen Mathews was shunted from relative to relative after her parents died in the 1890s. At one time, she was left alone on the streets.
After being beaten by an aunt, she went to Harrisburg to live with her brother. In 1904, she graduated with honor from Harrisburg High School. She taught Sunday school at Bethel.
She married attorney Robert Vann, editor of The Pittsburgh Courier, the nation's premier Negro newspaper. When her husband died in 1940, Mrs. Vann assumed many of his duties at the Courier while continuing to serve on several national boards.
A frequent White
House guest, Mrs. Vann was appointed by President Eisenhower to represent the U.S. at the inauguration of President Tubman of Liberia, and was offered a post at the United Nations. Her life story was documented on the popular 1950s television show This Is Your Life.
—Debra Sandoe McCauslin, Gettysburgh, PA
Vivienne Potter Elby
Vivienne Potter Elby, born in Harrisburg on September 15, 1924, was a member of Bethel AME for 75 years. The third of ten children, she graduated from William Penn High School in 1942.
In October that same year, she married Melvin K. Elby. Soon, a family of five children followed. In addition to her own children, she raised her nephew and four of her 12 grandchildren. She worked for the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and Milton Hershey School.
Mrs. Elby was the first African American house parent at the Milton Hershey School and actively recruited other African Americans to become house parents. She told her students to "be what you want to be," no matter what anyone else might tell them—and the way to do that was through education. She helped students with college applications, financial aid forms and college visits. Because of her remarkable efforts, Lock Haven University awarded Mrs. Elby an Honorary Doctorate degree in 2001.
Vivienne Elby passed away on February 9, 2013.