Stories from the Old 8th Ward

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

You are looking down a narrow street in Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward known as Tanner’s Alley, located just east of the state capitol between State Street and Walnut under what is now the K. Leroy Irvis Office Building and the green park to the south (look at Point #1 in his interactive map). Tanner’s Alley was no ordinary street in Harrisburg in the later 19th and early 20th century: this was a key station for the Underground Railroad and the very heart of the city’s African American community.

Geography is important for understanding the significance of Tanner’s Alley. Recall that the Pennsylvania State Capitol lay only 45 miles north of the Mason-Dixon line on key transport and transportation corridors to Philadelphia, Washington D.C., and Baltimore. As women and men sought their freedom from enslavement in Maryland and Virginia in decades before the Civil War, they found in Harrisburg an established community of free African Americans who resided especially in a neighborhood southeast of the state capitol. This district, later known as the Old Eighth Ward, had the highest concentration of African-American residents in the city in the second half of the 19th century. It was the destination for migrant newcomers seeking direction, connection, and opportunities.

Tanner’s Alley, located in the southwest sector of this ward, was the neighborhood’s heart and the center of activities associated with the Underground Railroad. Prominent residents of this district included Edward “King” Bennett and his wife Mary Bennett, Joseph Bustill, and William M. “Pap” Jones and Mary Jones, who all actively sought to help freedom seekers. George and Jane Maria, parents of T. Morris Chester (see below), worked tirelessly to assist other freedom seekers. This neighborhood would remain important for liberation and rights both during and after the Civil War. In the years after emancipation, resident Cassius Brown campaigned for votes for Black citizens; he was a well-connected and prominent city council and school board member who was involved in local politics and the city’s social clubs and lodges.

Harrisburg’s promixity to the south and network of transportation systems also made the city an important piece in the strategic calculus of the Civil War, which would effect neighborhood such as the Old Eighth Ward. Harrisburg’s canal, roads, and railroads formed an extensive transportation network that connected the state capital of Pennsylvania with the rest of the northern states. For good reason, the Confederate forces sought (unsuccessfully) to advance on Harrisburg in 1863 just before the battle of Gettysburg. For good reason, Pennsylvania Governor Andrew Curtin and Daupin County authorities had made Harrisburg the heart of the state’s mustering of soldiers for the Union Army in 1861. Camp Curtin, founded at the fairgrounds just north of Maclay Street in Harrisburg, served as one of the most important staging grounds for the Union Army between 1861 and 1865. The passing of as many as 300,000 soldiers through Camp Curtin over the course of the Civil War sometimes exceeded the accommodations of the camp buildings 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. The presence of so many northern troops near Harrisburg must have also created a variety of opportunities for individuals living in the city’s Old Eighth Ward to make a living through basic services, food and drink, and entertainment.

Following the war, Harrisburg hosted a “Grand Review” and parade honoring the members of the United States Colored Troops (USCT). The Garnet League, which was Harrisburg’s chapter of the Pennsylvania State Equal Rights League, hosted and planned 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 Harrisburg’s citizens cheering on the veterans. A parade commenced from State and Filbert Streets, two blocks east of Tanner’s Alley, and proceeded through the city. Prominent citizens from Harrisburg and Philadelphia, including T. Morris Chester (below), Simon Cameron, William Howard Day, Octavius Catto, and Rev. John Walker Jackson officiated and delivered speeches and prayers. 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.

Tanner’s Alley and the Old Eighth Ward were, then, central not only to the Civil War, but also to the quest for freedom and commemoration of the national fight for emancipation. The next time you visit the K. Leroy Irvis Office Building or stroll through the green park just north of Strawberry Square on Walnut Street, remember how important this district was in the national and state history of liberation.

Thomas Morris Chester (1834-1892)

“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.

Thomas Morris Chester was a highly influential individual in Harrisburg’s African-American community during the 1860s. Born in Harrisburg in May 1834, he grew up in a house near Third and Walnut Streets, only 200 yards south of Tanner’s Alley. His parents, George and Jane Maria Chester, were restaurant owners and established residents of Harrisburg since at least 1825. They were also radical abolitionists who taught Thomas from an early age the cost and value of freedom as they assisted freedom seekers in the Underground Railroad in Harrisburg. His recognition of the incalculable value of freedom would impact the course of his life.

T. Morris Chester was fortunate to receive an outstanding education that took him across the world. As a teenager, he attended Avery College, a private African-American school in Pittsburgh, where he studied under the eminent professor Martin H. Freeman. He briefly emigrated to Monrovia, Liberia, to continue his education, and completed his studies at Thetford, Vermont. He then worked as a journalist and taught for five years in Liberia before returning to Harrisburg just before the Civil War.

During the war, Chester took African Americans to Massachusetts to enlist in the United States Colored Troops division of the Union army. He himself led two military units in the defense of Harrisburg during the Confederate invasion of 1863. Chester also distinguished himself as a correspondent for the Philadelphia Press, the only Black war correspondent, in fact, during the Civil War. In November 1865, Chester organized a parade in Harrisburg — a grand review of troops — celebrating the African-American men who had served in the war. He led the troops as Grand Marshal.

In the post-war years, Chester remained a leading and influential member of the African American community both in Harrisburg and further afield. In a speech delivered by Chester in Harrisburg that was published in the Daily Telegraph, Chester spoke out concerning issues such as the African-American vote and the poor quality schools. After he left Harrisburg, he traveled across Europe, completed his study of law in England, and returned to the States to practice law in Louisiana. He eventually returned to his home city of Harrisburg and died in 1892 at 305 Chestnut Street, three blocks east of his childhood home, not far from the Old Eighth Ward.