Stories from the Old 8th Ward

Tanner’s Alley, an important station on the Underground Railroad
(photo, c. 1911, courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives)

Harrisburg was an integral city for the Union during the Civil War. Harrisburg’s canal, roads, and railroads provided an extensive transportation network that connected the state capital of Pennsylvania with the rest of the northern states. Camp Curtin, named after Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin, was founded at the fairgrounds just outside of the city’s northern boundaries at the beginning of the war. As a staging ground for the Union Army, thousands of soldiers passed through the camp between 1861 and 1865 and in turn shaped the small urban center. The influx of soldiers sometimes exceeded the accommodations at Camp Curtin and required use of the grounds of the capitol, while dispute over pay, living arrangements, and food led on several occasions to unrest and rioting in Harrisburg.

Harrisburg was also an important city for the Underground Railroad, both because of its proximity to the Mason-Dixon line and its prime location as a transportation hub. The highest concentration of African-American residents in the city in the second half of the 19th century lived in the neighborhood that would later be identified as the Old Eighth Ward, and Tanner’s Alley, located in the same area, became a center of Underground Railroad activity. Prominent residents of this district, including Edward “King” Bennett and his wife Mary Bennett, Joseph Bustill, and William M. “Pap” Jones and Mary Jones, were all active participants in the Underground Railroad. George and Mary Jane Chester, parents of T. Morris Chester, were born enslaved in Maryland before they liberated themselves and settled in Harrisburg, working tirelessly to assist other freedom seekers. Another resident, Harry Burrs, campaigned for votes for black citizens and was a prominent leader in social clubs and local politics.

Following the war, Harrisburg hosted a “grand review” and parade honoring the members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The Garnett League, which was Harrisburg’s chapter of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, was responsible for hosting and planning the event. On the morning of November 14, 1865, the USCT assembled at Camp Curtin and marched to the Capitol, where they were met by both black and white citizens of Harrisburg cheering on the veterans. Although the beloved Governor, Andrew Curtin, was unable to attend due to illness, other prominent citizens such as William Howard Day, T. Morris Chester, and Rev. John Walker Jackson were involved in this celebration. Both General Butler and General Meade spoke very highly of the USCT veterans, and this event marked an important demonstration for the promotion of equal rights.

T. Morris Chester

Thomas Morris Chester, commonly referred to as T. Morris Chester, was an influential individual in Harrisburg’s African-American community during the 1860s. Throughout Chester’s childhood, his parents, who had themselves once been enslaved, assisted freedom seekers in the Underground Railroad in Harrisburg. Chester himself pursued a degree in law and lived abroad in Liberia for a short period before returning to Harrisburg just before the Civil War. During the war, Chester took African Americans to Massachusetts where they could enlist in the United States Colored Troops division of the Union army. Chester also served as the only black war correspondent during the Civil War, working for the Philadelphia Press. After the war ended, Harrisburg hosted a parade celebrating the African-American men who had served in the war. Chester was influential in organizing the parade and served as Grand Marshall in this celebration. In the post-war years, Chester remained a leading and influential member of the black community. In a speech delivered by Chester that was published in the Daily Telegraph, Chester spoke out concerning issues such as the African-American vote and the poor quality schools. Leaving Harrisburg in 1867, Chester completed his master’s degree in England and returned to the States to practice law in Louisiana. He eventually returned to his home city of Harrisburg shortly before his death in 1892.

“From barber shops and hotels, from Tanner’s Alley to South Streets, from ‘Bull Run’s’ classic ground, from suburban settlements and subterranean ‘dives’ and rookeries, their beauty and their chivalry had flocked.” 

Patriot Newspaper,
June 10, 1863, commenting on the rallying of Black soldiers at a recruitment meeting led by T. Morris Chester