Picturing People from the Past

Recently the Digital Harrisburg team have been looking for photos to pair with the stories written for the Look Up Look Out campaign. These stories are the culmination of months of research dedicated to the residents and businesses of 8th Ward before its destruction in the early 1900s. Despite work done by Stephanie Patterson Gilbert on an Old 8th Ward website and the Penn State Harrisburg historian Michael Barton and his students, this ward had been largely ignored by history. Our goal was to bring the ward back into the public eye, bringing attention it’s people’s lives and achievements.

Most of the pictures we had previously collected were architectural, probably because a lot of our previous projects focused on the construction of the Capitol Park and the changes in landscape. From my personal experience, we had remained in an aerial perspective looking at the Old 8th from a removed point of view.

East State Street from Fourth Street (Pennsylvania State Archive RG17 Box 23)

Look Up Look Out, however, has taken us inside the ward itself and has required me as a writer to step into my subject’s shoes. So many, who I never knew existed, held significant influence on both a local and national scale. Frederick Douglass visited the Old 8th frequently to speak on the importance of gaining the “colored vote” between 1846 and 1895 (Harrisburg Telegraph 1895). William Howard Day, who was a resident of the ward, became the first African-American school board member and president while also making it possible for the first African-American students in Harrisburg to attend the boys high school in 1879. Sister Mary Clare established the St. Clare infirmary which took care of wounded and sick soldiers from Camp Meade during the Spanish American war (Harrisburg Telegraph 1917). She also established one of the first homes for women in need who were employed “in offices and stores, who desire and appreciate the comforts and pleasures of home surroundings.” (Harrisburg Telegraph 13 Feb 1895). Churches like Wesley Union AME Zion provided a place of community and support for many blacks within the city and became social gathering centers.

Filbert looking North from Walnut (Pennsylvania State Archives RG17 Box 23)

These are just a sample of the many lives and businesses that were entwined within the Old 8th ward. I’ve researched everything from gambling halls to philanthropic nursing homes and still haven’t found a single trait that describes them all. There is so much diverse character contained in that small section of the city that it becomes hard to describe. However, what I’ve found to be the most compelling piece of evidence actually are the pictures from before the Capitol Park extension.

Fourth at East Side Cooking from Walnut (North) (Pennsylvania State Archives RG 17 Box 23)

To be able to see the people interact with the environment makes their lives seems infinitely more real. All of the photos used for this post are actually from one hundred years ago or more. They capture time in a single frame. Most of them, because they’re so old, couldn’t be electronically scanned. However, even with digitally photographed copies we have discovered people within these photos who seem to blend into their surroundings.

Workers standing behind Cooper’s Foundry on Tanner’s street (Pennsylvania State Archives RG 17 Box 23)

The people are part of the landscape. They are inseparable. Memories and lives are attached to place, taking root and growing through experience. When the Old 8th got bulldozed to make room for more park space, the construction razed these people’s lives altogether. By removing the place, it effectively removed memory of the residents.

“Playground” in the Old 8th ward (Pennsylvania State Archives RG17 Box 23)

Look Up, Look Out hopes to replant the residents of the 8th ward in their proper home. A monument will be installed behind the Capitol building in 2020 which holds 100 names of influential characters from the 8th ward. While we couldn’t write stories about all of them (lack of information available), we have scoured census records, newspapers, and archived pictures to create the most complete picture of each individual. By putting these people’s story back in their location, we can once again tie a history to the Old 8th ward. It comes alive again, bringing a valuable addition to the history of Harrisburg as a whole.

“His First Visit, and His Warm Reception: How Frederick Douglass Came to Harrisburg”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 22 February 1895, 1.

“The Keely Institute”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 2 August, 1917, 9.

“Opening of the Mercy Home”, Harrisburg Telegraph, 13 February 1895, 1.

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