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History's Headlines: Dr. Ethel Drayton-Craig honors her family's roots as one of Allentown's first prominent African American families

By Frank Whelan, Historian, news@wfmz.com
Published On: Dec 24 2013 03:09:54 AM CST
Updated On: Aug 26 2013 11:12:09 PM CDT

History's Headlines

Ethel Drayton-Craig is a person of many achievements. Successful in both the fields of business and education, she has become a prominent figure in Allentown. Her impressive resume covers three sheets of paper and her most recent achievement was being named by the city to the NIZ board that is overseeing the downtown’s redevelopment. And those who look closely will note her image as part of the wonderful mural landscape that adorns the back exterior wall of  Miller-Symphony Hall.

Although she grew up in Brooklyn, where her family relocated after World War II, Drayton-Craig sees her accomplishments based on values learned from her parents, John and Thelma Drayton, who had grown up in Allentown as members of one of the city’s early black families. As a child she visited relatives in Allentown frequently, particularly her uncle Arnold, her father’s brother.

“My family was very active in the early days of St. James AME Church,” Drayton –Craig notes. “It was from them I learned Christian values and the importance of hard work and the ethics that have sustained me. We were taught early on to not let difficulties overcome you.”

One of the things that has interested Drayton-Craig for awhile is her family history, and by extension, the history of African-Americans in Allentown. Recently she helped coordinate an exhibit of local black history at the Lehigh County Senior Center. It included many newspaper clippings and photos of her family and historic events in the evolution of the region’s race relations.

The Drayton family arrived in Allentown in 1924 with her grandparents, John F. Drayton and his wife Henrietta, who came from Charleston, South Carolina. Drayton-Craig wonders if any of her family members were slaves at Drayton Hall, the historic plantation mansion that is regarded as one of the finest examples of 18th century architecture in the country.

John Drayton was a name borne by several male members of that plantation owning family, as it was in Drayton-Craig’s family. Somewhere along the way, and very much against the law at the time, the plantation owners apparently allowed them to learn to read and write. By the time the Draytons arrived in Allentown, the city had long had a small African American population.

It is possible that the first African Americans in Allentown were domestic servants waiting on William Allen and his friends at the first Trout Hall, Allen’s hunting and fishing cabin located on what is now Jordan Street behind Central Catholic High School. They probably came with him when he made his visits. When Allen’s son James lived in the current Trout Hall, we know he had at least three slaves (Cesar, Frances and Henry) living with him and his family as domestic servants. They were freed under his will in 1778.

In the 19th century African Americans make brief appearances in Allentown history. One James Grove was active in the evangelical movement in the city in the 1830s, allowing his house to be used for services.

The city directory of 1869 records 3 black barbers in Allentown- next to their names was the word “colored.” It was not at all uncommon for African Americans in Allentown to speak Pennsylvania German.

The Drayton family came north seeking economic opportunity. “My grandfather was a skilled carpenter,” says Drayton-Craig. “One of his first jobs was working on the Masonic Temple in Allentown, a job that was not an easy one to get at the time.” He later found employment as a carpenter at Bethlehem Steel.

Along with bearing 10 children, Henrietta Drayton worked as a laundress and a seamstress. “Muhlenberg College students would send their wash to her to do,” says Drayton-Craig. Her grandmother also taught her children how to be a seamstress. In 1989, her first child, Helen, recalled how her mother rapped her knuckles hard for getting a stitch out of place.

The two male children in the family were Drayton- Craig’s father, John and his brother, Arnold. Both men found life difficult as many African-American’s did at that time. Allentown did not have legal segregation, but, like many places in the north, the discrimination was real. Sitting in local movie theaters in the 1920s and 30s by blacks was confined to the balcony.

Drayton-Craig recalls her uncle being turned down for a job as a newspaper carrier by the Evening Chronicle, after being told “we don’t hire Negroes.”  Both Drayton brothers faced their worst challenge in the 1930s when they set up the first black Boy Scout troop in Lehigh County, a troop that was connected with St. James AME Church.

“At that time Dorney Park had a very popular swimming pool and my father and uncle decided to take the boys there for a swim,” Drayton-Craig recalls. “When they got there they were told that black people were not allowed to use the pool.” When her father and uncle complained, park authorities decided to solve the situation by draining the pool. “That day apparently no one got to use the pool,” says Drayton-Craig.

Drayton-Craig’s father entered the military, which was still segregated during World War II. “He was on Iwo Jima and recalled quite clearly seeing the famous flag raising,” she says.

“He was very happy when he saw the U.S. Navy arriving to take them off the island because a monsoon rain was forecast,” his daughter recalls. But John Drayton’s hopes turned to dismay when, during the storm, he and the other black troops were told that, despite the rough weather, they would have to eat on deck, rather than with the rest of the soldiers.

With the war’s end her father and mother, Thelma, moved to Brooklyn, New York, where Drayton-Craig grew up. But as a girl she made many trips to Allentown to visit her uncle who was a maintenance supervisor for McCrory’s department store. He died in 2002 at age 89. Her father John, who had returned to Allentown, died in 1996.

She also recalls her uncle saying that, despite the challenges he faced, he always remembered the advice of his mother: “Son, don’t walk around with a chip on your shoulder.”  These words are at the center of what Drayton-Craig calls “Drayton family values.” These were, she says, “wonderful values for how to carry yourself in life.”