Stories from the Old 8th Ward

State Street looking towards the Capitol
Now under the Soldiers Grove
(photo, c. 1911, courtesy of Pennsylvania State Archives)

At the turn of the century, Harrisburg was at a crossroads. The city was physically deteriorating and had lost its prestige as a thriving steel and railroad center. The rest of America moved on from its industrial boom, and Harrisburg was left behind. Faced with losing its status as a capital city, a change had to be made. Many civic reformers began to speak up about the drastic need for better health conditions in the city. After delivering a rallying speech to the Harrisburg Board of Trade in December 1900, a pivotal local leader, Mira Lloyd Dock ignited an intense reform movement that reinvigorated the city from the inside-out. Within the next thirty years, Harrisburg saw huge renovations in infrastructure, including the construction of a new water filtration system, paved roadways, and many new scenic green spaces. Employing experts like landscape designer Warren H. Manning and engineer James Fuertes, the deteriorating town of Harrisburg developed into a new metropolis.

These structural changes to the city included the Old Eighth Ward. The Old Eighth Ward was not only one of the poorer wards, but also the most diverse wards in the city, populated by many minorities and immigrants. These two aspects of the Eighth Ward’s makeup may have at least partially motivated pervasive newspaper accounts of the Old Eighth as a home to vice. In the wake of the newspaper accounts of the Eighth Ward and in light of the ongoing movement for aesthetically pleasing parks, a 1911 campaign called for an entire section of the Eighth Ward to be razed. In its place, the Capitol Building Park would be extended. Beginning in both 1911 and 1917, the Capitol Park Extension Commission held hearings concerning damage to properties in the Eighth Ward, ultimately condemning and repossessing most properties. In total, 541 properties were taken, and all of their residents were told to relocate. Only 18 owners were actually compensated, while many of the others were victims of foreclosures. Many of the displaced residents migrated to low-cost housing built throughout the city.

Along with individual homeowners, many other buildings in the community of the Eighth Ward were also destroyed and the occupants displaced. Seven business, five churches, two schools, and one hotel were removed from the ward to make way for the Capitol Park Extension. Some of the churches that were uprooted were able to reestablish roots in another part of the Ward. Wesley Union AME, originally located within the limits of the Capitol Park Extension, was able to reestablish elsewhere in the Eighth Ward, but many other churches lost their membership, and were scattered throughout the other wards in the city. Although the purpose of the Capitol Park Extension was to promote the city and further the idea of the “common good,” this movement came at the expense of much of the city’s minority and immigrant populations.

Dr. William H. Jones was a prominent resident of the Old Eighth Ward and advocate for City Beautiful

William H. Jones was born in 1860 in Snow Hill, Maryland to William H. and Esther Jones. He remained in this area of Maryland for most of his childhood before moving to Washington, D.C. to study medicine at Howard University for the next three years. Upon leaving Howard, Jones moved to New York to continue his education at the New York Polyclinic Institute as a graduate student. After his graduation in 1887, Jones moved to Knoxville, Tennessee to start his career. He relocated shortly thereafter to Harrisburg and settled in the Old Eighth Ward. Dr. Jones quickly became an active and respected member of the Harrisburg community, esteemed by both African-American residents and white residents of Harrisburg. Jones participated in many committees in Harrisburg, including the local school board and the board of trade, and he was also members of a variety of medical societies throughout the Pennsylvania. As a member of the Board of Trade, Dr. Jones was also involved in the original discussion surrounding the implementation of the City Beautiful movement. However, in 1905, during his active involvement in the community, Dr. Jones slipped and fell on the steps of the capitol and, while he was ill, contracted pneumonia and died about two weeks later. At the time, Dr. Jones was engaged to Margaret Lewis, who was at his side when he died. Because of his prestige in Harrisburg, the Harrisburg Telegraph called his untimely death a “distinct loss to the town” as he was so well respected in his community. Dr. Jones’ funeral was held at his church, St. Paul’s Protestant Episocopal Church. After his death, a memorial association formed in Dr. Jones’ honor. Ten years later, the association built a fountain in remembrance of Jones’ contributions to the city. The fountain was located at a local playground near Twelfth Street.

The obituary of Dr. William H. Jones, published in the Harrisburg Telegraph on January 19, 1905