Stories from the Old 8th Ward

Fry’s Hotel and Corona Hotel, formerly the Red Lion. Fifth Street looking south from State Street.

According to the 1900 census, just over 50,000 people called Harrisburg their home. Of these 50,000 people, 4,435 lived in the Old Eighth Ward. Statistically, the Old Eighth Ward was the most diverse neighborhood in the city of Harrisburg, due to a significant number of African-American residents as well as numerous Eighth Warders who were first and second generation immigrants from all over the world. The eighth ward was disproportionately occupied by African-American residents. A total of 1,507 African Americans, or about 34% of the ward’s population, lived in the Old Eighth. This percentage is quite large in comparison to other wards in the city. Second to the eighth ward, the ward with the largest African American population was the second ward; African Americans comprised about 11% of its population. By comparison, the tenth ward was the least diverse, with African Americans comprising only .5% of the total population. Meanwhile, the average population percentage of African Americans in all the wards of the city except the eighth ward was only about 6% – a startling contrast to the 34% of African American residents in the eighth ward. Not only did many African Americans live in the Old Eighth Ward, but the Old Eighth also served as home for many immigrants. At total of 359 people – or about 8% of citizens of the Old Eighth Ward – were born outside of the United States. An additional 359 citizens (8% of the eighth’s population) were born in the United States, mainly in Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia, and had two parents born outside of the country. Eight-hundred and fifty-nine residents in the Old Eighth had one parent born outside of the United States. As these statistics might suggest, many individuals living in the Old Eighth Ward had a strong sense of cultural heritage that extended far beyond the ward, which created a uniquely diverse community in the heart of the capital city.

This diverse community was greatly affected by the Capitol Park extension. Many people were displaced and forced to relocate to another part of the city, as homes and businesses were torn down to make room for this expanded capitol. In total, about twenty-nine acres, spanning from North Street to Walnut Street, were taken for the extension of the capitol complex. Within these twenty nine acres were numerous homes – homes filled with stories and fond memories of childhood. Writer J. Howard Wert Howard Wert captured some of these stories in his article “The Passing of the Old Eighth,” which depicts an encounter between the current and former owner of a house on State Street that was about to be demolished in the extension project. When a woman appeared at the door of her former home, the current owner graciously allowed this woman to tearfully relive her childhood memories of her old home. Another story recounted by Wert is that of a wealthy Irishman in the mid-1800s who made his fortune through mining and ultimately rebuilt their family home, located on fourth street in the Old Eighth, into a mansion worth a lofty $10,000 during that time. Wert sought to perpetuate this story of a son’s kindness to his mother by making sure this story was told. Eventually, this mansion became a boarding house and staple lodging in the Old Eighth.

Homes along the intersection of South Alley and Filbert Street with the Capitol Dome looming in the background. Photo courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

Boarding Houses were important sources of lodging and centers of commerce in the Old Eighth Ward. However, most boarding houses were seen as a place of vice where alcohol was prominent. Prior to the Capitol Park Extension, Theodore Frye, an African American man, owned a hotel on State Street in the Eighth Ward. In 1913, there were accusations of underage drinking at Frye’s hotel, and by 1917, Frye’s liquor license was rejected, and this was the only liquor license of a person of color in the Old Eighth Ward. Before this in 1916, Frye attempted to move his property in order to protect it from the Capitol Park Extension, but the reputation of “vice” at his boarding house, which was partially influenced by his race, caused opposition to arise from the Pennsylvania Railroad Company. Boarding houses were not only a place with a reputation of vice and liquor. Temperance hotels were founded throughout the Eighth Ward, which were alcohol-free hotels which were intended to be safer for women and children to stay at during their travels. The Women’s Christian Organization was responsible for founding some of these “temperance hotels.” Boarding houses and temperance hotels were an important part of the Old Eighth Ward, and the reputation of boarding houses contributed to the idea of vice in the Old Eighth Ward.

Excerpt from the Harrisburg Telegraph describing the vice that occured in Frye’s Hotel before it was torn down.
Hannah Braxton Jones owned her own home in the Old Eighth Ward. It was rare for either women or African-Americans to own their homes in the neighborhood.

Hannah Braxton Jones was born to Joseph and Maria Braxton in Virginia around 1855. When Hannah was about eleven years old, she moved to the Old Eighth Ward of Harrisburg with her family in 1866. After moving to Harrisburg, much of Hannah’s early life revolved around her father’s church, Second Baptist Church, which was founded by Joseph Braxton upon his arrival to Harrisburg.  At the time of her father’s death, Second Baptist Church had grown from about six members at its founding to nearly one hundred and seventy five members. In her early twenties, prior to 1880, Hannah married George Jones, and the two remained in Harrisburg and had two children, James and Mary Jones in 1875 and 1878. During this time, Hannah’s husband, George, was a reverend at Second Baptist Church, and Hannah herself was heavily involved in the church through leading women’s Bible studies, performing readings during the service, and contributing to the music.  In 1881, George Jones had stepped down as head pastor of Second Baptist Church, but throughout the next ten years, he spoke frequently as a guest speaker. However, by 1900, George Jones had died, leaving Hannah Braxton a widower. Also, during this time Hannah Braxton Jones became one of the few women of color in the city at this time to purchase a house with only her name on the deed. Until her death in 1928, Hannah Jones remained active in her church and in her community, and she taught music in Harrisburg. According to her obituary, Hannah was survived by her two children, six grandchildren, and even two great-grandchildren.