HARRISBURG, Pa. (WHTM) — At the Pennsylvania Capitol Complex in Harrisburg, along Walnut Street, three markers celebrate a community that no longer exists.
The Eighth Ward was located behind the State Capitol. It stretched east beyond the railroad tracks up to 18th Street, south to Walnut Street, and north to Forster Street. It was a diverse community with European immigrants rubbing shoulders with the city’s African-Americans population.
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The state historical marker concentrates on the time before the Civil War when the 8th Ward was an important stop on the Underground Railroad, and noted abolitionists like Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison spoke against slavery.
By 1900, 36 percent of Harrisburg’s African American population lived in the Eight Ward. But by 1920 the neighborhood had been wiped out, taken by eminent domain to expand the Capitol Complex. But memories of the old ward remained, and in 2020 construction began on a new monument named “A gathering at the crossroads: for such a time as this” which celebrates the eighth ward, the 150th Anniversary of the 15th Amendment which gave African American men the right to vote, and 100th Anniversary of the 19th Amendment which gave the vote to all women.
The monument had two dedication ceremonies, the first on August 26, 2020, with statues of Abolitionist William Howard Day and women’s rights advocate Frances Harper, and another on November 16, 2020, when statues of journalist and lawyer Thomas Chester and Jacob Compton, a member of the United States Colored Troops during the Civil War were added. In the center of the memorial stands a pylon with names of residents of the 8th ward and a relief map of the area as it looked back in the early 1900s.
Then in 2021, Yet another monument was added, by the Bench by the Road Project, a movement inspired by remarks made by Nobel Laureate Toni Morrison about the lack of memorials to slaves:
“There is no place you or I can go, to think about or not think about, to summon the presences of, or recollect the absences of slaves . . . There is no suitable memorial, or plaque, or wreath, or wall, or park, or skyscraper lobby. There’s no 300-foot tower, there’s no small bench by the road. There is not even a tree scored, an initial that I can visit or you can visit in Charleston or Savannah or New York or Providence or better still on the banks of the Mississippi. And because such a place doesn’t exist . . . the book (Beloved) had to” (The World, 1989).”
The ceremony included not only the dedication of the monument, but the unveiling of a bench, joining the other reminders of people, and a place, which could so easily be lost to history.