Harrisburg’s history of racial injustice

Harrisburg_capitol_building

Two of my colleagues in the Messiah University history department, Bernardo Michael and David Pettegrew, have an op-ed at PennLive today on their work on the African American communities of Harrisburg, Pennsylvania.

Pettegrew is the director of the university’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative. He and my colleague Jim LaGrand edited the most recent issue of Pennsylvania History journal, a volume which focuses on the work of Digital Harrisburg and includes short essays by several of our students.

Here is a taste:

One of the long-lasting outcomes of the racial protest movements this summer should be a broader recognition among the American public about how unjust historical policies perpetuated by systemic racism ended up dividing our nation’s communities.

In the mid-state, we are gradually gaining a clearer historical picture of the processes that segregated our own region in the later 19th and 20th centuries. African Americans were placed under constant surveillance while being denied equal access to social services, education, employment, housing, worship, transportation and entertainment. There are many episodes in this history that are coming to light.

Consider the location of recent protests in Harrisburg around the State Capitol Park, which, historians have shown, occupies the site of the vanished neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward, the heart of the city’s African American and immigrant communities from 1850-1913. The Old Eighth was vital to abolitionist work in the Commonwealth before the Civil War—here Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison met an angry crowd of revelers in 1847—and was significant in the fight for suffrage after the war.

Although the neighborhood was the heart of Black political organizations, societies, businesses, and churches, legislators felt it an eyesore to the new state capitol building dedicated in 1906 and campaigned successfully to replace it with green spaces and state buildings in the subsequent decade.

Read the rest here.

Yesterday Trump gave a speech about the suburbs. It sounded very familiar.

Redlining

Our history students at Messiah University are doing some great work as part of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative.

An exhibit on the Home Owner’s Loan Corporation‘s redlining of Harrisburg in 1935-1936, with primary reports of the commission, a list of resources, and an interactive story map was recently published at the Digital Harrisburg website.

The documents were originally found by my colleague Bernardo Michael. Students (now graduates) Rachel Williams and Sarah Wilson digitized the maps two years ago. And our friends at Harrisburg University helped us launch the Story Map.

The interactive map shows the original language used by surveyors to zone Harrisburg and its surrounding boroughs and townships and includes links to original photographs. The exhibit also provides a good foundation for understanding the history of racial segregation in the city.

I thought about this redlining project today when I heard Donald Trump speaking at the White House:

This part of Trump’s speech wreaks of segregation, red-lining, and racist dog-whistling:

  • The suburbs, where mostly white people live, are “beautiful” and they will be destroyed if Biden gets into office.
  • If Biden is elected your property values will decline because of rezoning. More people of color or poor people will arrive.
  • The only city Trump mentions is Minneapolis. When most of his followers hear “Minneapolis” these days they think about race riots. This is a dog-whistle.
  • “Crime rates will rapidly rise.” Who are these criminals? Who does Trump have in mind?
  • What does Trump mean when he says the suburbs will be “obliterated by Washington Democrats, by people on the far left that want to see the suburbs destroyed?” People have “worked all their lives to get into a community,” Trump says, “and now they are going to watch it go to hell.”

He’s not even hiding it any more.

Here is some more history:

Do You Know About the Digital Harrisburg Project?

Digital Harrisburg Journal

Photo by Peter Powers

PA History Harrisburg

Photo by Peter Powers

The Digital Harrisburg Initiative continues to roll on at Messiah College. My colleagues are happy to announce the recent publication of an entire issue of Pennsylvania  History journal devoted to the project.  It contains essays by Messiah College faculty, students, and others who have been involved with the project over the years.

Digital Harrisburg

Photo by Peter Powers

David Pettegrew, the director of the project, provides additional updates at Digital Harrisburg blog:

It’s been some time since our last general update on the Digital Harrisburg Initiative, but that is not for lack of trying. Over the last year, in fact, our operation at Messiah College has grown, and our teams have been buzzing in activities, projects, digital tools, meetings, research, and public collaborations with community partners. It’s the abundance of work more than its scarcity that has been behind the silence on our end.

Each week at Messiah College, Dr. Jean Corey (director of the Center for Public Humanities), Katie Wingert McArdle (coordinator of Digital Harrisburg and the Center for Public Humanities fellows program), and I meet several times with different student groups who hail from humanities disciplines such as English, history, ethnic and area studies, and politics, as well as the occasional computer science student. Meanwhile, over at Harrisburg University of Science and Technology, Professor Albert Sarvis continues to work with a team of geospatial technology students on the mapping components of the initiative.

Student work

Students at work in the Messiah College digital and public humanities lab

So today, let me touch on a few of the highlights in our Digital Harrisburg initiative. In fact, I’ll just be scratching the surface here, since I won’t be saying everything, and each of the following anyway is a world unto itself. Some of these will warrant additional posts in the months ahead if or as we have time. At the very least, students in my digital history and digital humanities courses will follow up this week and next month with discussions of their own research.

Our major updates in the last year:

  • Commonwealth Monument Project: Over the last year, our faculty and students have partnered with an exciting grassroots initiative in Harrisburg and the Commonwealth to remember and celebrate the city’s historic African-American community and multi-ethnic neighborhood of the Old Eighth Ward. This is an incredible project that has support from major local organizations, including the Foundation for Enhancing CommunitiesMessiah College, and M&T Bank, as well as state government. We have supported various activities in the city, including a poster campaign in the state capitol buildings and Amtrak station, a search for the descendants of the Old Eighth Ward, biographies of 100 important voices in the African American community, and interviews and exhibits. Read about the various activities of the Commonwealth Monument Project here on the Digital Harrisburg website, the project website, the Facebook page, and significant media coverage.
Posters of the Look Up, Look Out campaign on display in Parmer Hall at Messiah College right before the regional division of the National History Day competition. A parallel set of posters are on display in the buildings of the State Capitol Complex and Harrisburg Amtrak station.
  • Funding: Although most of the funding for our work has continued to come from the generous support of Messiah College (for this website and the historical and humanities work) and Harrisburg University (in the case of our mapping initiatives), the Messiah College group was fortunate to receive a Council of Independent Colleges grant last spring to support our 2019-2020 work related to humanities research for the public good (along with 24 other schools). That grant program, which is funded by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation, has expanded our capacity to support student research and contributed to hiring a part-time project coordinator. Our project coordinators last year (Andrew Hermeling) and this year (Katie Wingert McArdle) have significantly improved the quality of our work in both its digital and public components. Our grant activities for the Council of Independent Colleges have focused on supporting the Commonwealth Monument Project (noted above)

Read the rest here.

Pennsylvania History: The Final Exam!

PA Hall

The 1838 burning of Pennsylvania Hall, a meeting place for abolitionists

For the past decade I have been teaching a course on Pennsylvania History at Messiah College. The class meets several requirements.  Some history majors take it for a 300-level American history elective.  Other history majors take it as part of their concentration in public history.  Non-history majors take the course to fulfill their general education pluralism requirement.

I have to make this course work for all of these students.  For the public history students, we do a lot of work on the relationship between “history,” “heritage,” and “memory.”  We also feature some training in oral history. Each student is required to do an oral history project in which they interview and interpret someone who can shed light on a particular moment in Pennsylvania history.  As a pluralism course, Pennsylvania History must address questions of religion, race, ethnicity, and social class in some meaningful way.

This year, I split the class into four units:

After several tries, I think I have finally found a pedagogical formula that works.   The students take their two-hour final exam on Friday.  Here are the questions they are preparing:

In preparation for the exam, please prepare an answer to one of the following questions:

QUESTION #1

In each of our four units this semester, we spend considerable time talking about the idea of race and race relations in Pennsylvania History. How do issues related to race play out in the following periods and places in state history:

  • Early 19th-century Philadelphia
  • The Pennsylvania frontier in the 1750s and 1760s.
  • The way the Civil War has been interpreted at Gettysburg
  • The City Beautiful movement in Harrisburg
QUESTION #2
We often use the past to advance particular agendas in the present. Consider this
statement in the following contexts:
  • The Centennial celebration in Philadelphia (1876)
  • The Paxton Boys Riots
  • Gettysburg as a “sacred” site
  • The portrayal of Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward by reformers affiliated with the City Beautiful movement.

Good luck! Or as I like to say to my Calvinist students: “May God providential give you the grade you deserve on this exam.”

A Saturday Morning in the Old 8th Ward

Old 8th 2

I am really enjoying my Pennsylvania History course this semester.  As part of the last unit of the course we have been studying Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward.  The ward is referred to as “old” because it no longer exists.  The largely working class (white immigrant and African American) neighborhood was demolished in the first two decades of the twentieth century to make way for the building of the state capitol complex.  The destruction of the Old 8th Ward was the brainchild of the middle and upper-class reformers who brought the City Beautiful movement to Harrisburg.

Much of the narrative of the Old 8th Ward has been shaped by these reformers.  As you might imagine, this narrative is not very flattering.   City Beautiful reformers painted a picture of a broken-down community of run-down homes, crime and licentiousness, gambling, drunkenness, racial and ethnic otherness, and sexual promiscuity.  But as the scholars and students at the Digital Harrisburg Project at Messiah College have shown, the Old 8th was also a vibrant community of men and women who deserve to be taken seriously in their own right.  The work of the Digital Harrisburg Project has restored agency to this vanished community by telling the story of its members.

Recently, the Digital Harrisburg Project received a grant to place historical markers in the Capitol Complex at places of importance in the Old 8th Ward–houses of worship, homes of  African-American leaders, and even the ward’s red light district.  The organizers are calling it the “Look Up and Look Out” project.

On Saturday, I took some of the students in my class to the Capitol Complex to learn more about the people of the Old 8th Ward.  We have been reading about the City Beautiful Movement, the African-American community of the ward, and the butchers, barbers, confectioners, and bakers in the ward, so it was fun to walk the ground where this energetic community was located.

Our tour guide for the morning was Drew Dyrli Hermeling.  Some of you know Drew as the producer of The Way of Improvement Leads Home Podcast, but he also works part-time as the director of the Digital Harrisburg Project.  Drew not only helped us imagine what the Old 8th Ward would have been like before its destruction, but he also gave us valuable insight into the work of Messiah College public history students and Digital Harrisburg as they seek to retell this important and under-interpreted part of Harrisburg history.

Old 8th 1

Drew gets us started with an overview of the Capitol Complex and the Old 8th Ward