Retelling the story of Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community

By Kelan Amme

This fall, I will be helping to create a video/audio tour of African American History in the city of Harrisburg. In partnership with the Center for Public Humanities at Messiah University, the T. Morris Chester Welcome Center (at the McCormick Public Library), and Mr. Lenwood Sloan of the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism, I have begun to collaborate on a digitally based project that tells the story of the United States’ first African American war correspondent, T. Morris Chester. Chester is one of the prominent bronze figures at the “Gathering at the Crossroads” monument and is the focal point of the “T. Morris Chester Way,” which runs from the monument to Front and Walnut Street, where the library is located.

-Photos of the Crossroads monument by Kelan Amme – April 8, 2022

This project aims to tell the story of T. Morris Chester by creating a series of short, documentary-style videos that feature Chester and other members of the “100 Voices,” who were African American citizens who influenced local, state, and national history. After meeting with Lenwood Sloan last week, we discussed our plan moving forward. As a man of the theater, Lenwood has developed a guided walking tour featuring what he calls “past players,” who dress, act, and speak like the historical figures that they have worked to epitomize. This includes Frances Harper, William Howard Day, and Chester himself.

Our next step is to attend one of the upcoming tours this month, observe the intricacies of the past players, and decide how to film them. Our immediate plan is to film the figures that perform on Chester Way. Additionally, we plan on bringing the past players to Messiah University, where we will record a voiceover (likely of the speech they give during the tour) using professional microphones and audio equipment to hopefully be put into its own video about the specific person. With each of the past players, we also plan on gathering various primary and secondary source information that we can use as visual additions to enhance our short documentary experience.

With our videos, we hope to recreate Lenwood’s tour and repurpose it on a digitized map of Chester Way, where visitors can click on interactable points and view a video about each figure, similar to the other specialized maps on this website. We hope this gives those unable to attend the tour in person a way to get an experience as close as possible to one that is in person.

As history becomes even more digitized, the demand for fair access is essential to the public. This is best summarized by Environmental Historian William Cronon, writing for Perspectives on History in 2012; “From one point of view, the new digital libraries represent an immense democratization of knowledge… One can now search and read (books) online that even a decade ago weren’t nearly as accessible even at institutions lucky enough to own them—and no institution owned them all.” Ultimately, we simply hope to tell inspiring stories of Harrisburg’s historic African American community in new ways where everyone and anyone can benefit.

I am completing this project as part of a course-related requirement for my Humanities Projects class that Dr. Pettegrew advises over. My partners for this project are Nate Castellitto (Sr.) and Micah Turner (Jr.), both English majors at Messiah University and student fellows for the Center for Public Humanities. I was given an option to choose what project I wanted to work on as part of my course, and I chose this one because I felt it would give me the most significant opportunity to sharpen my digital skills and skills as a historian. Please stay tuned for updates.

Kelan Amme is a junior History major with a concentration in Public History and a minor in Digital Public Humanities at Messiah University. He also works as an Archival Assistant at the Brethren in Christ Historical Library and Archives, Messiah University Archives, and the Ernest L. Boyer Center Archives at Messiah University. His LinkedIn profile can be found here.

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