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Robert Grant: An American's Story

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Oct 28 2011 04:16:07 PM CDT
Updated On: Oct 31 2011 05:02:20 PM CDT

History's Headlines tells the story of an unlikely friendship that came about more than 100 years ago.

MACUNGIE, Pa. -

There is a startling old photograph in the collections of the Macungie Historical Society. At first glance it seems like many others, a small town baseball team posing for a team picture  as in any turn-of-the-century American town. But there is a sudden catch. In the center of the sea of all white faces is an African-American child. Dressed in a cap, wearing an immaculate white shirt and small bowtie, he has an outsized baseball glove on his hand.

A little research leads to the name of the young man, Robert Grant. The tall gentlemen behind him are members of the Singmaster family of Macungie. Among the leading citizens of the town, they would become Grant’s family also. It is a remarkable tale of a unique relationship between people at a time when, both by law and custom, the races in America were deemed to be separate and unequal.

The details of Robert Grant’s early life were probably vague even to him. He was probably born in 1893. His birthplace was probably Gettysburg, the site of the greatest battle of the Civil War. His mother was a young woman named Harriet Lane. That was also the name of the niece of James Buchanan, the only Pennsylvania native to occupy the White House. Lane ran the social side of the bachelor president’s official life and had no less than three Coast Guard cutters named for her. But from all we know of Robert Grant’s mother, unlike her namesake, she was a poor woman.

The remarkable part of the story begins in the early 20th century when brothers J. Walter and Howard Singmaster were attending Gettysburg College together.  As Grant himself recalled it in 1957 he, an apparently fatherless child without any older brothers, had become friendly with the members of the college’s athletic teams. That is how he got to know the Singmaster boys. Grant also remembered that he began to beg and plead with his mother to allow him to go home to Macungie with the Singmasters to live with them after they graduated from college.

Singmaster Home 1887 For reasons that are unknown today, in June 1903 Harriet Lane signed a document drawn up by the Singmasters that allowed them to take her son to live with them in Macungie. They promised to raise the boy properly and see to his welfare. It was written on the back of a program for the upcoming 40th anniversary of the battle of Gettysburg.

The document was doubtlessly of dubious legality. And would never be tolerated today. But all Robert Grant could remember many years later was that a large part of Gettysburg’s black population of 200 showed up at his farewell party, gave him some money, and came to the railroad station to say goodbye when he left town. He was probably 10 years old.

By his own account Robert Grant remarkably recalled little animosity toward him in Macungie.  In later years, he remembered classmates making comments in Pennsylvania-German that he thought were directed at him. Grant quickly learned the dialect. But if he did hear racial slurs, there’s no record he ever discussed them.

2Ida-J Walter-Howard Singmaster Grant’s upbringing was largely taken over by Singmaster’s widowed mother Ida Baughman Singmaster. She apparently is the one who taught Robert Grant how to cook. Later he became the Singmaster family’s favorite chef, called on to make the special Pennsylvania-Dutch family meals that had been taught to him by Ida Singmaster.

In 1917 after the entry of the U.S. into World War I, Grant enlisted in the U.S. Army. His military service included the battle of the Argonne Forest. In all the time he was away, the Singmasters heard nothing from Grant. So when the war ended in 1918 they had no idea if he was living or dead. Since he had left for the war, Ida Singmaster had died, J. Walter had married, and his brother Howard was living in the family home with his wife.

HG Readinger General Store 1909 On a summer night in 1919 Howard Singmaster was in bed when he heard someone at the front door. At first he thought it was just his imagination. Then he had a hunch. Leaning out the window he said, “Robert, is that you?” A familiar voice answered back, “Yes, sir, it’s me.” Singmaster went downstairs, opened the door, and found Grant in full uniform with a knapsack on his back. He had taken the late night trolley from Allentown. Within a half hour there were 50 people at the Singmaster house to welcome him home. Whatever Grant’s experiences were in World War I, he apparently never talked about them on the record.

For the rest of his life Grant lived in Macungie and worked for the Singmaster family at the East Penn Foundry, retiring in 1958. At the same time, and for many years thereafter, he also acted as cook, chauffer, and handyman. Howard Singmaster’s daughter Anne noted in the 1950s that in many ways Grant raised her and was not shy about telling her when she was doing something wrong. “He was the pillar of the household,” she said then.

robert_grant Only once is it known that Robert Grant ever had anything to say about race or politics in America. In 1970, at the height of the Vietnam War and shortly after the urban riots of the 1960s the then 76-year-old Robert Grant talked to a reporter for the Evening Chronicle. He had just completed a project with local Boy Scouts and VFW post, replacing the tattered flags on the graves of veterans.

Grant expressed strong opposition to disrespect for veterans coming home from that war. But most of all he felt the country had become cold and unfeeling. “It all ‘Hooray for me.’”

Robert Grant died on December 3, 1980 and is buried near the Singmasters’ burial plot in Macungie. 

Historical pictures courtesy of the Macungie Historical Society.