Stories from the Old 8th Ward

Aerial photo of Capitol Park, showing original location (red dot) of Bethel A.M.E. Church on E. State Street, now under the Memorial Fountain. Click on image above to visit interactive map of the Old Eighth Ward.
Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church, where Frederick Douglass delivered a lecture on October 17, 1894

The Old Eighth Ward was one of Harrisburg’s most diverse neighborhoods in the later 19th and early 20th centuries. The district’s varied ethnic and racial composition was unparalleled elsewhere in the city, and its residents were engaged in a range of occupations. Many were run-of-the-mill laborers who found employment in the nearby railroads and manufacturing facilities. Others represented a variety of professional classes: small business owners, lawyers, preachers, nurses, and teachers, among others. From the period before the Civil War to the opening years of the 20th century, the Old Eighth hosted numerous social events including public speeches from influential reformers and intellectuals. Public talks, sponsored by local clubs and civic associations, were common at venues such as the Lochiel and Brant hotels, while the churches, synagogues, and squares of the ward also hosted countless speakers—both local and national—who inspired change.

An advertisement in the Harrisburg Telegraph for Douglass’s lecture at the Bethel A.M.E. church

One of the most famous speakers to come to the Old 8th Ward was abolitionist Frederick Douglass. He traveled to the city of Harrisburg multiple times between 1846 and 1895. According to the Harrisburg Telegraph, in 1895, he first came as,

a young man who was active in trying to secure the liberation of his race from bondage.

Douglass spoke on a number of topics, drawing together Republicans from all over the city. He called for “the extension of the elective franchise to the colored people…” Douglass also came to many of the historically African American churches including the Wesley Union A.M.E. and Bethel A.M.E. congregations and well received by the whole ward.

Other speakers such as W. Justin Carter and A. Dennee Bibb spoke in the late 19th and early 20th century about Douglass and tried to further his mission. Others such as Francis Harper came to advocate for women’s rights. At a meeting of the National Council of Women in 1891, she stated:

There are some rights more precious than the rights of property or the claims of superior intelligence: they are the rights of life and liberty, and to these the poorest and humblest man has just as much right as the richest and most influential man in the country.

Frances Harper, poet and women’s rights advocate

Frances Harper was a prolific anti-slavery poet and speaker who advocated for women’s suffrage and temperance as well as abolition. Born in 1825 in Maryland, she became an orphan at three years of age and went to live with her uncle, William Watkins, a teacher at the Academy for Negro Youth and a radical political figure in civil rights; his activism influenced Harper’s political, religious, and social views. Harper began publishing her writing at a young age, her first book being released when she was 20 years old. She wrote many additional literary works over the course of her life. In 1850, she became the first woman to teach at Union Seminary in Wilberforce, Ohio, with the support of Reverend John Brown, and later she taught in Pennsylvania and participated in the Underground Railroad. She began her activism through anti-slavery speeches in 1854 as a representative of the State Anti-Slavery Society of Maine, and donated much of the profits from the sales of her books toward abolitionist causes. She made many visits to Harrisburg to give speeches, including several on the topic of temperance. On February 10th of 1883 and February 21st of 1889, she led temperance meetings at the Short Street A. M. E. Church. She also directed a temperance meeting at the Wesley Union Church on South Street in October of 1884. Harper continued her work as both a writer and speaker on social issues social involvement until her death in 1911. A Harrisburg newspaper reported that she,

had done more for her race than any other woman

She undoubtedly left a lasting impression on the people and church communities of the Old Eighth Ward.