Following the death of George Floyd and the nationwide and local Black Lives Matter protests, we asked several members of our Harrisburg community if they would like to share their personal stories.
I’ve been so many places in my life and times!
My journey includes three U.S. coasts and four continents. Since 2005, I have referred to myself as Harrisburg’s “foster child.” A refugee of Katrina, I fled New Orleans and was lucky enough to land here in the Rendell administration as director of cultural and heritage tourism.
Refugees are different than immigrants. We fled from one place instead of choosing another. Foster children are in a perpetual state of waiting for “a forever family.” While I work hard to belong, I’m constantly confronted with the salutation, “You’re not from here, are you?”
Fifteen years doesn’t count! I know people who have been here five decades and still get the same question. You see, unless you were born here, you are never from here. You’re instantly measured and identified by your church, the neighborhood you grew up in, or the year you graduated from John Harris or William Penn High School. You’re constantly asked, “Who’s your Momma? What lodge did your grandfather belong to?”
Foster children always have that lost look in their eyes. We are always searching for a sense of permanency. We’re always looking for “our people!”
When I arrive in a new place, I always head directly for the town’s MLK Boulevard. Every town usually has a roadway named for the great civil rights leader, right? Not Harrisburg. In fact, it’s the only city I’ve come across that named a boulevard after the Exemplar of Peace and then reversed the action! The only evidence I could ever find of its existence is a disturbing archival record and a pile of signs in the back of a public works building.
As a Black historian, I’m always looking for the presence of the past. Where are the markers of the legacy of my people? Where are the symbols of our achievement against the odds? If you were born here, you might identify the few and vanishing markers of our heritage. If not, you’re lost.
While working on a cultural project along the four-mile Riverfront Park, I could not find a single monument, plaque, bench or emblem of achievement exemplifying the contributions of African Americans. Walk the entire Capitol Complex, and you’ll find precious few markers promulgating our presence there either!
But let’s stay in the present! Where do you take African American tourists to discover Harrisburg’s Black amenities? You’ll find no thriving Black business district, no African American bookstore, art gallery, Black-owned theater, Afro dance center, literary society, public choir. There’s no local Black baseball game to attend or marching band to fall behind. Indeed, when asked, the answer often is, “There used to be!”
“Used to be” is simply not good enough! Cultural identity is built on a foundation of brick-and-mortar institutions, physical signs and symbols which ground and substantiate it. Black-owned enterprises become the loom on which we weave the cultural and multicultural warp and woof of a people. They’re the safe houses of our images, icons, artifacts and memorabilia.
I continue to wonder as I wander, where do Black people exist on the landscape of Harrisburg’s memory? Where are the safehouses of our cultural experiences? Who’s recording what it is to be Black in Harrisburg for present children and future generations? Who’s building monuments to our achievements?
Martin Delaney, the great Pennsylvania abolitionist who fought for freedom with the U.S. Colored Troops in the Civil War, wrote, “Every people should be originators of their own destiny.” Today and every day, we should work hard to pay it forward so that we have something to look forward to with hope and something to look backwards on with pride.
Lenwood Sloan is the executive director of the Commonwealth Monument Project. He serves as the governor’s appointee to the Capitol Preservation Committee and board member of the Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation.