Greater Harrisburg's Community Magazine

Voices of the Past: New book tells the stories of Harrisburg’s historic African American community

In August, a new monument celebrating African American history was erected on the Pennsylvania state Capitol grounds.

The Commonwealth Monument Project came out of a desire to pay tribute to Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, a historic African American and immigrant neighborhood that was demolished to expand the Capitol grounds.

The best way that Lenwood Sloan, executive director of the project, could think to honor the memory was by introducing people to the families that once lived in the neighborhood.

On the monument, 100 names were inscribed. But that wasn’t enough. He wanted people to know their stories.

Now, each bronze-inscribed name comes to life in a new book entitled “One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community 1850-1920.”

“We came to the revelation that we couldn’t just write their names,” Sloan said. “They are not merely names in a census, but stories that were lost to us. We need to tell the story about these people.”

Brought to Light

“Through my research in Harrisburg, I know quite a few people that were prominent in the community,” said Calobe Jackson Jr., a local historian and co-editor of the book.

Jackson has a well-earned reputation around the city as the history guy. If you need information on an old building, a historic figure or a memorable event, he’s your man. Lenwood Sloan knew this when he reached out to Jackson for a favor.

He needed a list of 100 names of African American figures from the 1850s to 1920s for the monument’s pedestal, names that would later become stories for the book. Jackson put together a file including freedom seekers, abolitionists, activists, police officers, doctors, preachers, janitors and many more. All had ties to Harrisburg and most had ties to the 8th Ward, Jackson said.

“A lot of people didn’t know about or forgot about these people,” Jackson said. “A lot of these people were Harrisburg High School graduates and teachers in the district. I’m proud that we can show students now what these past students did.”

Sloan remembers someone asking him why he was making such a big deal out of the names, especially with many of them being widely unknown.

But these jobs that seem unimportant in modern days, such as street sweeper or housekeeper, were important back then, Sloan said.

“We need to lift them up out of obscurity,” he said.

Through a grant from the Council of Independent Colleges, Messiah University was able to help with the Commonwealth Monument Project and the “One Hundred Voices” book.

Thirty Messiah students researched the historic figures and wrote excerpts on their stories for the book.

“The process of researching these individuals was pretty challenging,” said David Pettegrew, a history professor at Messiah and an editor of the book.

With some of the 100 people being less prominent, Pettegrew said they had to really look deep into archival material—a process he believes was worth the result.

“We need to do more local African American history,” he said. “This book contributes to a broader story about this resilient community who lived through change at the local level. This is Black Lives Matter historically. This is Black Lives Matter locally.”

Beginning of Discovery

Finding the stories behind the names on the list was only the start of something much bigger. Messiah students sent out graphics on social media looking for descendants of the 100 names they had learned so much about.

“Believe it or not, descendants began to contact us,” Pettegrew said.

Around 100 people with ties to the 100 names reached out to the university. Some even assisted in writing the chapters for the book.

“Getting to connect with the descendants has been the most rewarding thing,” Pettegrew said.

Even for those who may not be direct descendants of people in the “One Hundred Voices” book, Sloan believes there is a way for everyone to connect to it.

“The book helps you map your personal narrative in relation to the 100 names,” he said.

Not only is the book about individual education, but Pettegrew hopes that it will engage people in Harrisburg’s history—one that isn’t always told.

“We are hoping this is just the beginning of discovery,” he said. “We want it to inspire people to think about Harrisburg in a new way and the rich African American history.”

“One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community 1850-1920” is free to download on the Digital Harrisburg website. Physical copies are available for purchase at the Midtown Scholar Bookstore or on Amazon. For more information, visit  

The Commonwealth Monument is located at 4th and Walnut streets.

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