The stories lurk in half-forgotten memories. The images hide in boxes stashed in attics.
Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, a dense, crowded neighborhood squeezed between the Pennsylvania Capitol and the railroad tracks, is long gone. But through a diverse group of activists, genealogists, scholars, actors and techies, the voices and faces of a vibrant community are emerging to illuminate a crossroads of history.
Throughout 2019, they are mounting a multi-faceted history project with a reflection and re-examination of the Old 8th at its core.
“The Bloody 8th” inhabits our imaginations as home to speakeasies, brothels and tenements along narrow streets “into which little of God’s free air or sunlight can enter,” in the words of newspaper chronicler Howard J. Wert in 1912.
But the 8th was also home to a melting pot of residents—a gateway to the city for African Americans, Russians, Greeks and others. They ran tanneries and laundries, attended churches and synagogues, raised families, and harbored refugees along the Underground Railroad.
Still, by Wert’s time, City Beautiful proponents couldn’t abide the huddled masses teeming outside the back door of Pennsylvania’s new Beaux Arts Capitol. They envisioned a park. So, by the 1920s, most of the 8th Ward was gone, and its residents scattered.
Today, when arts activist Lenwood Sloan looks at the Capitol’s East Wing and Soldier’s Grove, he hears echoes of the past. The problem, he said, is finding tangible reminders. Other than the K. Leroy Irvis Building, named after the first African American speaker of the Pennsylvania House, no monuments recognize the contributions of African Americans to the city or nation.
That absence seems especially poignant now that it’s 2019, the 150th anniversary of the 15th Amendment, which granted voting rights to men regardless of race, and the centennial of the 19th Amendment, which finally gave women the vote. Local historian Calobe Jackson, Jr., learned that news of the 15th Amendment’s passage sent 8th Ward residents into the streets to celebrate.
“We lose track when we lose physical monuments or places of engagement,” Sloan said. “We lose track of ourselves and especially each other, and we lose track of how hard communities work to achieve the right to vote and then to sustain that right and protect that right.”
Through the project, a jigsaw puzzle of activities will recreate the sights and feels of a bustling community:
- A monument to four key players in 8th Ward history and voting rights.
- A search for descendants of 100 prominent residents—ministers, state workers, musicians, attorneys, baseball players, Underground Railroad conductors, and one involved with “aeroplane school”—in hope of mining their family stories and archives.
- A Chautauqua series at the McCormick Riverfront Library and Live and Learn “informances” from the Past Players, held at Gamut Theatre. TFEC is funding both.
- A theatrical presentation to be developed by Gamut Theatre Group. The 8th “was a rough place, but it was a lot of tough people coming together and learning what their strengths were,” said Artistic Director Clark Nicholson.
- Posters, a website and window clings—yes, window clings—developed by Digital Harrisburg to recreate for Capitol workers and visitors the sights and stories of the 8th Ward.
One of the discovered descendants is well-known musician Jimmy Wood, whose great-grandfather, Jacob Compton, spirited Abraham Lincoln out of Harrisburg to evade assassination.
Wood didn’t know Compton, but he knew his great-uncle, Armon S. Compton, a pharmacist trained in Philadelphia who was never employed at white pharmacies but plied his trade in the 8th Ward. Wood never heard stories of Jacob’s heroism, but he remembers the spark of pride in Armon’s bearing.
“My assumption is that, besides his intellect, his pride would be based on what he knew about his image,” said Wood. “I’m hoping I can find somewhere a picture of Jacob. That would be absolutely awesome.”
Wood won’t cry over spilled milk, but the disappearance of the 8th Ward—where musicians played in clubs, a great-uncle ran a hotel and his midwife grandmother delivered babies—offers a warning.
“Bring some caution and some good sense when you decide on these kind of development projects,” he said. “It can’t always be about someone’s dollar and making a profit. People have to live somewhere. They should have some decent place.”
Some churches and synagogues of today have their origins in the 8th Ward. They were, like residents, pushed aside “to erase this area of ‘blight,’” said Andrew Dyrli Hermeling, project manager of Digital Harrisburg, the Messiah College-Harrisburg University joint venture to digitize archival images.
Two factors drive our ongoing fascination with the 8th, said Messiah College History Department Co-chair David Pettegrew.
“It has the reputation for being the wild side of the city in the late 19th century,” he said. “The other has to do with this disturbing factor of displacement that occurs for the greater good. So, it naturally raises questions about what is the common good. It was in the name of beauty, but there’s a feeling that the state just yanked away properties. That injustice surprises people.”
Harrisburg genealogist Sharonn Williams is the great-granddaughter of Ephraim Slaughter—prominent 8th Ward leader and Civil War veteran. Williams joined the 8th Ward project because too much of the history she has researched reflects today’s political turbulence.
“You’re trying to take away my right to vote, when my right has been paid for in the blood, the sweat, and on the backs of my ancestors for hundreds of years,” she said.
Today’s “civil war over civil rights” and the devaluation of civics in education “break down understandings of the responsibilities of citizenship and the privileges of the franchise,” agreed Sloan.
“We are among the last generation where we can talk to people who were in those struggles, and also we’re in the last generation that cares enough to keep those family artifacts in the closet or under the bed,” Sloan said. “We’re saying if you’re not interested in this, don’t throw it away. Give it to the historical society. Give it to the state archives. It’s pieces of the jigsaw puzzle that help us build memory and continuity.”
For more information about Digital Harrisburg, including online history resources, visit www.digitalharrisburg.com.