History is an interpretation of the overlapping and at times contradictory stories about the past. These stories, and their interpretations, profoundly shape modern identities and perspectives on culture. The following collection of oral histories recounts the stories of different residents in Harrisburg and the organizations in which they have been involved. The stories illustrate both the diverse individual backgrounds of residents in Harrisburg and the ways in which each of these stories intertwines to create a unique city identity.
Finding Home Collection
Finding Home is an oral history project that explores the different notions of “Home” experienced by the people living in the Harrisburg area. The city of Harrisburg has been home to people from all walks of life, some born and raised here and others making home, bringing with them stories from previous lives. Stories include topics of relocation across borders and how to create home here in central Pennsylvania.
Finding Home: Borany Kanal-Scott Interview
Borany Kanal-Scott tells the story of her journey from war-torn Cambodia to a refugee camp, New Zealand in 1980, and then eventually to central Pennsylvania where she has lived for 17 years. She discusses how being uprooted in childhood and her journey to the US permanently affected her view of what home means and how she finds belonging not in a place but through God and the Church.
Back to School Collection
This oral history collection focuses on the history of segregation and integration in Harrisburg public schools. Stories are told by former Harrisburg residents effected during integration, including students and teachers from William Penn High School, John Harris High School among others. Stories focus on race, education, and how Harrisburg’s educational environment has changed.
Back to School: Frances Lavender Interview
Frances Lavender recounts her experiences with racial disparities at William Penn High school from 1966 to 1969. She talks of how color wasn’t really seen until Martin Luther King Jr. and his influence which began the recognition of segregation policies. She also discusses the introduction of African American studies and the importance of equal opportunity education in facilitating social change in Harrisburg.
Back to School: Isom Mobely Interview
Isom Mobely, originally from Washington DC, moved to historically blue-collar Steelton in 1957 and then Harrisburg in 1959. He discusses the bad influences he was exposed to during childhood that kept him from school. After relocating at age 9 than age 11, however, he came to the Bose School where his 3rd-grade teacher encouraged him to participate in education. He discusses his experiences in later high school of racial discrimination and poor treatment of minorities in Harrisburg high schools. After a confrontation with white students at Bishop McDevitt, he and his black friends were sent to court for assault and battery and saved only by witness accounts. Mobely tells mostly violent conflict within the high schools between blacks and whites.
Back to School: Marion Dornell Interview
Marion Dornell was born in Harrisburg in 1939 and grew up in the home acquired but her great grandmother on Liberty Street in 1913. Her family, however, had resided in Harrisburg since 1866. She went to William Penn for a year in 1954 before transferring to John Harris where she graduated in 1957. She compares the differing demographics of the two schools and the surrounding areas. While there was a comfortable blending of race and religion at William Penn that conveyed a sense of home, John Harris was much more hostile. She explains the difficulty in finding language to deal with discrimination in school at the time and how continuing to examine these experiences furthers the conversation about racism.
Faith and Memory Collection
This oral history collection focuses on the history of African-American churches in the Harrisburg community. Stories are told by members of Wesley Union AME Zion Church, Capital Presbyterian Church, and St. Paul’s Episcopal Church focusing on race and church history. All of these churches were originally located in the Old Eighth Ward until they were relocated in the early 1900s due to the extension of the Capitol Park.
Faith and Memory: Rudolph Jackson Interview
Rudolph Jackson was born in Temple Florida, moved to Georgia at 6, and finished a year of college before being drafted into Vietnam. He moved to Reading in the 50s, met his wife, and started working for the Department of Defense which led him to a job near Harrisburg. Eventually he came to work for the United Way until he retired. He joined a church and became an elder at Covenant Church until it closed in 1986 and then joined Capital Presbyterian. Coming from a family of preachers reaching back to a former slave, Rudolph recounts his experiences in the military in segregated units in several locations, moving in between different communities in Harrisburg, and his memories of the changing demographics of his Church.
Faith and Memory: Bob and Ann Scott Interview
Ann Scott was born in Newborn, Georgia. Her father’s father was the white owner of a plantation on which she grew up. She discusses the prejudices that existed within her family over the color of one’s skin and who was accepted as “white enough”. She also talks about the financial success of her father and how much his philanthropy was recognized. After meeting Bob in Atlanta, her father supplied them with enough money for a nice house. Bob discusses his decision to go to a historically black college and experience in the south as a person of color.
Faith and Memory: Hettie and Karen Love Interview
Hettie was born in 1922 and Karen was born in 1954. Hettie was originally Presbyterian. She didn’t become an Episcopalian until 1951 when her first child was born and her husband had him christened in the Episcopal church. She had, however, been led to the St. Thomas Episcopal Church in Philadelphia by people she lived with and now possesses a letter about their 155 anniversary and the church’s history. She recounts her introduction to the vast traditions of the Episcopal church and how much history they contained. Karen helps to elaborate details as Hettie relates her encounters with different faith traditions in North and South.
Harrisburg History Collection
This oral history collection focuses on the history of Harrisburg in the 20th century generally, including the African-American community in the city.
Calobe Jackson, Jr. Interview
Calobe Jackson, Jr., is a Harrisburg institution, known and appreciated by many for his work as a postal supervisor, his service on the Harrisburg school board, and his indefatigable work as a historian of his city. A native and life-long resident of Harrisburg, he knows Harrisburg like few others. Jim LaGrand and David Pettegrew interviewed Mr. Jackson on July 24, 2019 in the Juniata Room of the Pennsylvania State Archives. Rachel Williams transcribed the two-hour long interview. Mr. Jackson speaks about his experiences at school, in his neighborhood, among friends and classmates, his work as a postal clerk and local historian, influential figures in Harrisburg’s African American community, the City Beautiful Movement, and the Commonwealth Monument Project. An excerpted section of the interview was edited and published by the interviewers in the winter 2020 issue of Pennsylvania History, “Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community: An Interview with Calobe Jackson Jr.” (pp. 212-224). This is available for free download from the PHA website.
The full version of the transcript can be downloaded as a PDF here:
The unedited original audio is available below. The listener should note that a fire alarm went off during the recording session and the group was forced to vacate the building from about twenty minutes in to forty minutes in. The listener may skip ahead from 20:42 to 40:45.