Harrisburg MLK Day Celebration Looks at Civil Rights Pioneer William Howard Day
Harrisburg Correspondent - Published: January 23, 2012


On Thursday, January 19th, the Harrisburg campus hosted its annual Martin Luther King Jr. Celebration at noon in the Pit.

Following a welcome from Dean Linda L. Ammons, local high school history teacher and author Todd Mealy spoke to the students about Martin Luther King Jr. and his predecessor William Howard Day. A photo essay of the new Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial in Washington, D.C. consisting of pictures taken by Dean of Students Keith E. Sealing provided a backdrop for the discussion.

“Life seems to have a consistent trend of good and bad. Because of that infinite cycle, we are always in need of leaders,” said Mealy, who called William Howard Day a great leader of the 19th century and Martin Luther King a great leader of the 20th century.

Mealy focused on Martin Luther King’s promissory note speech – more commonly known as the “I Have a Dream” speech. Throughout this speech, King metaphorically explained that the government had a promissory note to the American people. The founding fathers promised equality and that all men were guaranteed unalienable rights. Yet it was obvious that the government had defaulted on this promissory note. He threatened the government with a peaceful revolution.

However, Mealy also noted that there was a time before the promissory note speech. There was a time before Martin Luther King Jr.’s march in Washington, D.C, and there was another generation of leaders that held that baton. Ninety-eight years earlier, there was a march in Washington, D.C led by newly freed slaves. They marched on the capital, using the president’s home as a backdrop, and challenged African Americans to put pressure on the government for equality. William Howard Day was one of those leaders.

Day was a teacher to children of freed slaves. He was a preacher and orator, and more importantly he was a leader. He made many contributions that helped cement America’s civil rights campaign. He was well known for his participation in the Underground Railroad, serving as a chairman of the Underground Railroad in Ohio and later in Canada. Throughout his participation with the Underground Railroad, he worked with abolitionists John Brown, Fredrick Douglass, and Harriet Tubman. Mealy summed up Day by stating he was the most significant and most marginalized hero of the 19th century. He observed that we could easily be celebrating a day named for William Howard Day instead of Martin Luther King Jr.

Mealy also supplied the students with handouts that contained historical sources that documented the Underground Railroad. These included various newspaper articles and letters that he had found throughout his research. Mealy pointed out that the articles were not discrete when discussing the Underground Railroad. In fact, it was very public. Some articles stated the number of slaves they helped escape. Other articles asked for donations and listed the amount of donations they had received for the Underground Railroad. Even specific names and addresses of the Underground Railroad participants were also listed in these newspaper clippings.

Mealy wrapped up his speech by advising the students that the community is always looking for leaders. He also spared time for questions from the assembled students and faculty.

Harrisburg native Todd Mealy is a history teacher at Penn Manor High School. He is the author of two books; Biography of an Antislavery City, which looks at the role Harrisburg played in the antislavery movement, and Aliened American: A Biography of William Howard Day, which consists of two volumes that examine Day’s adoption by a white family, his collaboration with civil rights activists like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman, and his days as an educator, preacher, writer and orator during the 19th century. Mealy has also taught a course on the Underground Railroad at Dickinson College and written on Black History Month for the Harrisburg Patriot-News.