On the 600-block of Maclay Street is one of the city of Harrisburg’s most recognized murals. Spanning the entire side of a building, it colorfully depicts the 1847 visit of abolitionists Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison.
While the mural signifies the honor and prestige of the event, it was actually one of the most dishonorable happenings in Harrisburg’s history.
In a letter dated August 8, 1847, one day after a town hall meeting with the renowned abolitionists in downtown Harrisburg on the wrongs of slavery and the need for civil rights, Douglass described what happened.
At the start of the meeting, Garrison, who was white, was given attention and due respect when he spoke; yet when Douglass, who was black, took the stage, a bombardment of rotten eggs came through the doors and windows. The sounds of fireworks and obscenities filled the air from a mob that had gathered outside of the hall to violently protest Douglass’ visit.
There was no one there to stop what Douglass defined as a “fiendish rage.” Audience members became fearful for their own safety and pressed in panic out the exits. No police came. No one attempted to stop the brutal throng.
Seeing that the danger was too great, Garrison addressed the stench-filled room and told the audience that the abolitionists’ mission in Harrisburg had ended. He announced that he and Douglass would travel on where there was self-respect and where freedom of speech and the right to assemble were protected.
An attorney named Charles Rawen stood up and declared the people of Harrisburg did value liberty and that, if the mob could not be stopped, it was because the people of Harrisburg let it happen.
No one joined Rawen in message or action.
The meeting was closed with only a few words said by Douglass, and the abolitionists departed physically unharmed except for suffering the drench of rotten eggs and the disappointment of vanquish.
Afterwards, Douglass wrote, “The atrocious character of the proceedings is sufficiently palpable, and Harrisburg one day will be ashamed of it.”
Another Meeting, Another Time
Flash forward to July 24, 2013. Civil rights activists Martin Luther King III and Cylk Cozart came to Harrisburg to discuss education, parental involvement, youth violence and cultural empowerment at a community forum at John Harris High School.
Unlike 166 years ago, there were no demonstrations of protest or violence. There was no mob outside seeking to harm or drive the speakers out of town.
However, an analogy of shamefulness can still be drawn.
The auditorium that seats 1,200 people was scattered with about 500 to 600 attendees.
An hour before the event began, it was recorded that all but 54 tickets had been reserved. Free tickets, too. The only purpose of having to secure tickets was keeping track of how many were expected to attend the visit from these celebrated community organizers and activists.
There was anticipation that people would have to be turned away.
That was not the case.
The audience was meager. State officials were present, but numerous local officials were notably no-shows. Despite the fact that these national leaders of the black community arrived in a city with a majority population of black residents, that was not sufficiently represented in the crowd. By a show of hands, there were only about 15 city of Harrisburg students present even though there were groups of youth sitting idly throughout the neighborhood within bounds of the auditorium’s doors.
In juxtaposition to Douglass and Garrison’s visit, this time the people of Harrisburg didn’t fail to protect freedom of speech and the right to assemble. This time, the people of Harrisburg failed to witness it.
Issues of the Day
While he was here, Martin Luther King III said, “When women and men come together, we bring about change.”
The city of Harrisburg is clearly in need of change, and, while it’s the financial and governmental issues that make the front pages of local and national media outlets, there are lesser-discussed social changes to be had, too.
For various reasons that can be debated at length, Harrisburg is impaired by a lack of tolerance and collaboration. Slavery may no longer be the explicit topic on the table, but racism—both white to black and black to white—is well in evidence.
The insidious tangles of superficial bias and hate wrap themselves around the city and threaten it to a more severe degree than the empty coffers of City Hall.
The causes for this are many and are shared by urban areas across the nation, such as disinvestment, poverty, educational disadvantages, politics and ethnic and cultural prejudices.
When listed like this, these challenges seem too big and lofty to overcome. The virtue of Harrisburg, though, is that it is a small city. The problems it faces are much more manageable at this scale. It may seem daunting, but this capital city along the river can adopt effective models of change to realize its potential, succeeding not just financially but as a community.
Of course, that will only come with serious changes in attitude, action and leadership.
Step one is to work together.
This will be accomplished if the people of Harrisburg adjust their historical reputation by standing up and showing up for what is right and worthwhile.
Then perhaps the words of the great speakers who have visited Harrisburg for the common good will have resonance to those who live here.
Tara Leo Auchey is creator and editor of todays the day Harrisburg.