Sharing the Stories of Harrisburg’s Schools through Story Maps

Image Source: Alex Shehigian

by Alex Shehigian

When this semester’s Digital History course began, I was capable of discussing the more theoretical elements to this facet of the discipline of History but lacked technical experience in the vast majority of applications and tools that have now become central to the field. As our class explored software such as Omeka, Story Maps, and Microsoft Access, however, that slowly began to change. Today, not only do I have the basic skills required to navigate many of these programs, but I have used these skills to create a project that expands upon the story of race and place in Harrisburg.

Using Esri’s Story Maps, I created a website that combines text, images, documents, and map data into a compelling narrative about nineteenth- and twentieth-century schools in Harrisburg. The first step in bringing this story to life was to research the schools. I began at the Pennsylvania State Archives and the Historical Society of Dauphin County, where I digitized historical photographs and documents using mobile scanning software. I then turned to the Newspapers.com database, through which I analyzed over two thousand news articles. All the information provided about each school is derived from historic Harrisburg newspapers and the photographs and yearbooks examined at the Historical Society of Dauphin County. Using Story Maps’ ArcGIS software, I created an interactive map of Harrisburg that with each school’s geographic coordinates.

The resulting Story Map, titled “Schools of Harrisburg’s Sixth and Eighth Wards,” traces the development of four public schools in the city. Three of these schools, the Wickersham School, the North Street School, and the Calder Street School were built specifically to serve the city’s African American populations, concentrated in the Sixth and Eighth Wards. The fourth school, by contrast, the Harrisburg Technical Institute, was a repurposed version of the city’s first public school and served a predominantly white student body. Through an exploration of each school’s story, this project examines how race impacted each school’s funding and public perception.

Students of the Wickersham School selling war stamps during World War II. Image Source: Newspapers.com

The Wickersham School, built between 1896-1897, was located at the corner of Briggs and Cowden Streets in Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward. Hailed as a gateway for greater opportunity for African Americans, this school boasted a vibrant variety of extracurricular offerings, such as football, baseball, basketball, and track teams, as well as a Girl Scouts troop, an orchestra, and a chorus. In the early twentieth century, a Night School program was added to provide instruction in English, American history, and government to recently arrived immigrants.

The North Street Public School. Image Source: Historical Society of Dauphin County

Also known as the Lincoln School, the North Street Public School was built between 1876-1877 for the African American students of the neighborhood. The school’s location was a source of controversy since before its construction, as parents feared this site would create an unsanitary and unstable learning environment. Sure enough, students often got sick, and rooms needed to be aired out frequently. In 1892, some improvements were made, including the construction of a sewer that connected to main city pipelines. When a new school in the wealthier neighborhood of Allison Hill was given the name Lincoln, the school on North Street was renamed the Day School after prominent African American education reformer William Howard Day.

The Calder Street School, built in the 1860s, stood at Calder and Marion Streets. It was the oldest school in the Sixth Ward and the oldest school for African American students in Harrisburg. The Calder Street School community was a vibrant one, with students who excelled in singing, gymnastics, and creative writing. Like the North Street School, the Calder Street School to maintain structural and sanitary conditions. Despite the city’s promise to provide an updated building by 1906, the new Calder Street School building was not completed until 1912 due to financial and legal complications.

The Harrisburg Technical School. Image Source: Historical Society of Dauphin County

The Harrisburg Technical School was originally known as the Lancasterian School. Founded in 1827, it was Harrisburg’s first public school. In 1834, the institution abandoned the Lancasterian education method and became a traditional high school called the DeWitt School. To maintain a quality learning environment, the school was renovated in 1849 and again in 1865. At the turn of the twentieth century, Harrisburg’s manufacturing sector was booming, and the number of factory employees was increasing. Accordingly, the city decided to transform the DeWitt School into a technical school. By 1905, the newly renamed Harrisburg Technical School reopened, now equipped with a new back building, along with machinery and workshops. The school had football, tennis, basketball, hockey, and track teams, which were written about extensively in local papers. Ultimately, the Harrisburg Technical School was shut down in 1926 and its students were reassigned to newer schools. The building then served as the City Hall until the 1980s, when it was converted into an apartment complex.

Each school’s story provides insight into the education experiences of nineteenth- and twentieth-century children in Harrisburg, as well as the role race and neighborhood played in the funding, repairs, and opportunities that were made available to each individual public school. It is also worth noting that local newspapers covered Harrisburg Technical Institute much more extensively than the three African American schools. Ultimately, the schools that arose out of the education reform movement evidenced the complex and inconsistent movement toward racial equity in Harrisburg.

Ultimately, this project has shown me the value of GIS software and place-based storytelling. By pairing text with photographs and locations on a map, I was able to see these old schools come to life in ways that spoke to both their individuality and the parts they play in the larger narrative of Harrisburg’s education system. It is my hope that this Story Map does justice to this narrative.

Read more about the schools of nineteenth- and twentieth-century schools here.

Alex Shehigian is a sophomore at Messiah University. She is majoring in public history and minoring in the digital public humanities. She is also an Archives Office Assistant at the Messiah University Archives and volunteers with the Walt Whitman Birthplace Association archives. You can learn more about her here.

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