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A Family's History: The Story of William C Goodridge

Goodridge Home, York, PA (Wikicommons)

William C. Goodridge, father of East Saginaw photographers William O. and Wallace Goodridge, was more than the father to some of the most talented photographers of the late nineteenth century; he was one of the most successful businessmen in York, Pennsylvania, and an anti-slavery activist. William provided the connections which later brought Frederick Douglass to speak in East Saginaw on two occasions.

Although William never settled in Saginaw, without him our Saginaw story would not have been shaped by the Goodridge Brothers.

William C. Goodridge was born to an enslaved woman in Baltimore in 1806. Although there is no record of his father, it is assumed he was a white man. Around the age of five William was sent to York, Pennsylvania, as an indentured servant to Rev. Michael Dunn. Though an occasional preacher, Dunn also had a tannery where young William labored. Dunn should have set William free at the age of twenty-one, but the tannery went bankrupt when William was sixteen, and so he was freed at that time.

William left York and moved to Marietta, Ohio, where he trained as a barber. He decided to return to York in 1824 where he worked as a barber in Central Square. He began as an employee, but soon came to own not only that shop but the building along with many others.

William married Evalina Wallace in 1827. More than his wife, Evalina was William’s business partner, and under her guidance, William prospered. He would try his hand at a number of business enterprises. Within a few years of owning his own barber shop, he began to also sell candies, cosmetics, and toys from the same location. He invented a treatment for baldness, which sold under the name “Oil of Celsus.” He had wholesale distribution of his product across thirteen cities including New York, Washington, D.C., and as far west as Columbus, Ohio. He also had a string of enterprises such as an employment agency and even a pay-per-view Christmas tree, being something of a novelty at the time.

Real estate offered his most prosperous venture. Records indicate that he regularly bought and sold property, including ownership of several rental properties. His first property was his family’s home: a two-and-a-half story townhouse, which now houses the Goodridge Freedom House Museum. There William and Evalina raised five children. (The Goodridges had seven children total, but only five survived.) Eventually, he sold properties he had bought on Center Square, where his barbershop was located, and used the profits to construct a towering five-story building known as Center Hall. Construction was completed in 1847. William and Evalina’s oldest son Glenalvin moved his photography studio to Center Hall’s top floor.

William also invested in railroad freight cars. His original line of “Bruthen Cars” moved freight between York and Philadelphia. Between 1843 and 1847, he expanded with the “Reliance Line” that connected more than a dozen cities, crossing into the South as well as running North.

Both William’s real estate and his freight cars proved instrumental in his anti-slavery activities. For obvious reasons, there are not many records of the Underground Railroad, the name given to the clandestine network that aided enslaved peoples’ quest for freedom.

The Underground Railroad used encoded language, such as referring to safe houses as “depots” or “stations,” and people who assisted in travel were “conductors” while owners of safe houses were “agents.” Three major routes went through Pennsylvania and York had an extensive network. William Goodridge was a prominent person in that network.

When the Goodridge Freedom House Museum began its renovation work, they discovered a hidden panel which revealed a hiding place for escaped enslaved peoples. William also, apparently, had secret compartments in his rail freight cars, so he could smuggle people to Philadelphia so they could continue on their journey to freedom.

William was active in anti-slavery circles, even befriending famed abolitionist Frederick Douglass, so it is no surprise to find evidence of his involvement in the Underground Railroad. One unverified story says that he even aided one of John Brown’s lieutenants, Osborne Perry Anderson, to escape following the Harper’s Ferry raid in 1859. Anderson wrote his own account of the raid and his escape in his narrative, “A Voice from Harper’s Ferry” (1861). After detailing his escape first to Chambersberg, Pennsylvania, he explained:

“At night, I set out and reached York, where a good Samaritan gave me oil, wine and raiment. From York, I wended my way to the Pennsylvania railroad. I took the train at night, at a convenient station, and went to Philadelphia, where great kindness was extended to me; and from there I came to Canada… To avoid detection when making my escape… my journey over the railway was at first in the night-time, I lying in concealment in the day-time.”

Goodridge is not named, but the description fits what we know of William’s activities and resources.

A series of tragedies befell the Goodridge family.

Evalina died in 1852, after which her influence on William’s businesses became ever more apparent. He did not manage so well after her death and ended up in bankruptcy in 1858 following the economic depression of 1857. William stayed in York and kept his barbershop.

Their eldest son, Glenalvin, began a promising career in photography. He had a studio for portraiture, and according to historian John Jezierski: "G.J. Goodridge was not York's first photographer, but he was the community's first native son to establish a studio that operated for more than a few weeks or months." Glenalvin learned all of the cutting-edge photographic techniques making him one of the most skilled photographers of his era, and one of only five Black photographers before 1850.

Then a white woman, Mary E. Smith, accused Glenalvin of raping her on March 30, 1862. Glenalvin had been at one of his branch studios in Columbia on the day in question. Nevertheless, the white jury convicted Glenalvin and sentenced him to prison on February 17, 1863, for a sentence of five years.

William never gave up on his son and continued to petition for his release. Two years after his prison term had begun, in 1865, Governor Andrew G. Curtin pardoned Glenalvin but said he was required to leave the state.

William’s daughters had already left the state. Emily followed her husband to Minnesota and Mary, along with brothers William O. and Wallace, moved to East Saginaw by 1863. It’s unclear why they chose East Saginaw. There is no record of any connection. It’s even unclear if they moved because of Mary’s husband, John L. Nicholas, who was a barber there, or if that came after. Perhaps it was the prosperity of the lumber industry and its promise of photographic material that drew William and Wallace, both photographers who had been trained by Glenalvin. Wallace marked July 1863 as the anniversary of opening the Goodridge Brothers Photography Studio in East Saginaw. (Learn more about William and Wallace by visiting our exhibit “A Wider View of Saginaw” on display now.) Mary had her own success, following in her father’s footsteps, developing her own scalp treatment that she sold from her shop on Washington Ave. (Also see an advertisement of her treatment in our “Made in Saginaw” exhibit.)

William had nothing left for him in York once he had secured his son’s release from prison. The pair set out for East Saginaw where their family welcomed them, and tragedy followed. Glenalvin had contracted tuberculosis in prison. In early May 1867, William and Glenalvin left East Saginaw to journey to Minneapolis, where Emily had settled. Glenalvin died less than six months later, on November 14, 1867.

William remained in Minneapolis with Emily’s family for the rest of his life. Despite having spent just a couple short years in East Saginaw, William nevertheless left his mark on our community. His and Evalina’s enterprising successes and encouragement of their sons’ photographic talents led to William O. and Wallace taking residence here. Thanks to the brothers, Saginaw’s rise as a lumber and industrial capital was preserved for the ages.


John V. Jezierski. Enterprising Images: The Goodridge Brothers, African American Photographers 1847-1922. Detroit: Wayne State University Press, 2000.

John V. Jezierski. “’Dangerous Opportunity’: Glenalvin J. Goodridge and Early Photography in York, Pennsylvania.” Pennsylvania History


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