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IIPT Harrisburg Peace Promenade Project restoring memories

IIPT Harrisburg Peace Promenade Project restoring memories

A group spearheading the International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT) Harrisburg Peace Promenade is working to restore the memory of the Old 8th Ward and its people with a monument placed near the State Capitol of Pennsylvania. The unveiling of the first component of the monument, The Orator’s Pedestal, was a two-hour celebration, led by local activist Lenwood Sloan, who is spearheading the project. It featured speeches, songs and dramatizations by the Harrisburg Past Players, a group that represents figures from local history. The monument features four prominent African-American activists: William Howard Day, Thomas Morris Chester, Jacob T. Compton and Francis Ellen Walker Harper. They are gathered around a pedestal listing 100 Black families who were displaced by the demolition.  The Orators Pedestal will serve as a GPS marker of the once valued now vanished community, a pictogram of the Old 8th Ward, and an honorary roster of a cross section of its citizens.

Today, nothing remains of the Old 8th Ward, a mainly African-American and immigrant community which surrounded the Pennsylvania State Capitol Building in Harrisburg. This was Harrisburg’s religious and racial melting pot, representing two percent of the population of Harrisburg. Cramped tenements housed hundreds of immigrants, mainly Germans, Irish Catholics, and Russian Jews. Forty percent of the 1600 residents in this neighborhood were African Americans, many of them formerly enslaved.  Cleared in the early 1900’s to make room for the Capitol expansion it was a casualty of the City Beautiful Movement, a movement at the turn-of-the-century to remake American cities (echoed again in the urban renewal programs a half a century later).

“A Gathering at the Crossroads” re-creates a place in time. The place … the Old 8th Ward … The time  …  when the 15th Amendment became federal law securing the vote for African American men. According Harrisburg newspaper accounts, people were pouring into the streets in the Old 8th Ward in spontaneous jubilation as citizens gathered for a public reading. The reading was followed by prayers and praises. The monument’s female figure, Francis Harper, poet, orator and suffragette holds a copy of the 15th amendment. Like many Pennsylvania Anti-slavery advocates, she was also engaged in advocating for women’s right-to- vote but it would be another fifty years before the 19th Amendment became law.

Monument featuring four prominent African-American . activists and listing 100 Black families displaced by the demolition. Sculpture by Becky Ault. ART Research Enterprises, Inc.

“The more you hear, the sadder you become,” Lt. Governor John Fetterman said during his remarks. “But all you can do is celebrate and promote the efforts to remember.” Fetterman is promoting one of the monument’s activations “Look Up Look Out,” a series of installations in 12 state office buildings. Fetterman is encouraging employees and visitors to imagine the Old 8th using stories and images from that time on interpretive panels linked with QR codes to deeper content.

There are other activations, S.T.E.A.M. curricula development, monthly civic engagements with alternating formats a performance of living history characters playing the four personas represented in the monument in a performance /”informance” style presentation, a book and a scholar creating emersion in the period (from 1870-1920) followed by “bring your family artifacts and talk to our history detectives.”

“This project is about vigilance, about being vigilant about the blood, sweat and tears it took to advance these things,” Sloan said. “And it’s about valuing the vote. “We are honoring the Old 8th, we are commemorating the passage of the 15th Amendment to the US Constitution 150 years ago and the passage of the 19th Amendment 100 years ago securing the vote for African Americans and women respectively,” Sloan said as he nodded and tipped his top hat.

The Orator’s Pedestal is the first piece of the monument to be delivered. It represents about 10% of the cost of the life-sized full monument ($400,000) and fundraising is ongoing. “We want this to be in place by Juneteenth 2020,” Sloan said. “We hope it will enliven a corner that thousands of people cross every day, and we hope people learn the value of the vote.”

This is the third year of the IIPT Harrisburg Peace Promenade. The first two years, the group focused on the monuments in downtown Harrisburg along the Susquehanna River which had fallen into disrepair. The activists rededicated eight monuments, celebrated their original purpose with new stewards, committed to the place and its memories, the people and their futures.