To recognize Black History month, we’d like to draw a bit of attention to a book that The Digital Press published last summer: One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg’s Historic African American Community, 1850-1920 edited by Calobe Jackson, Jr., Katie Wingert McArdle, David Pettegrew. Over the last few weeks, we pestered David Pettegrew, one of the book’s editors, over email and he graciously discussed how this book came to be, its connection with the Commonwealth Monument Project and Digital Harrisburg, and the ways in which academic historians, community activists, and students can work together to create work of public significance.
He also shared a link to a video from a conversation that the editors had at the Pennsylvania State Library:
Our conversation with David demonstrates the role of public digital humanities scholarship in building new communities and working to address the historical challenge of racism and inequality.
1. This book is just a tiny part of a number of much larger ongoing projects. How in the world did you manage to get all the moving parts together to make this project and the Commonwealth Monument happen? Who all was involved and how did it happen?
Yes, it was a massive collaborative undertaking involving lots of players and moving pieces. One Hundred Voices itself was an offshoot of the Commonwealth Monument Project, an initiative dedicated to installing a monument to local Black history on the Pennsylvania State Capital grounds and to commemorating the ratification of the 15th and 19th amendments, which gave African American men and then all women the right to vote. The CMP, as we abbreviate it, grew from the vision of the talented Lenwood Sloan (the project’s executive director), and the deep historical knowledge of Calobe Jackson Jr., who both recognized that Harrisburg lacked a public monument to its African American history. Lenwood juggled all the moving pieces from 2018-2020 under the umbrella organization of the International Institute for Peace through Tourism (IIPT) Harrisburg Peace Promenade, and the fiscal sponsorship of The Foundations for Enhancing Community.
The main work of the CMP of course was the installation of a beautiful new monument on the southern end of the Capitol Park in the very heart of the city’s former historic African American neighborhood, a district called the Old Eighth Ward, which was demolished in the 1910s to put in the park east of the Capitol building (this was the common 20th century story of a state dispossessing an immigrant and Black neighborhood in the interest of ‘urban improvement’).
The bronze monument was installed last August and finalized in November. it includes four life size bronze statues of notable African Americans who had an important influence on Harrisburg in the 19th century standing together in conversation about the ratification of the 15th amendment in 1870 and its incomplete charter (since it did not guarantee the right of women to vote). The four orators are William Howard Day, the educational reformer and civil rights pioneer; Frances Harper, poet, abolitionist, and suffragette; Jacob T. Compton, sergeant in Company D of the 24th United States Colored Infantry (USCT) and local musician; and T. Morris Chester, Civil War correspondent and recruiter. They stand surrounding a bronze pedestal which includes a 3D sculpted plan of the Old Eighth Ward, as well as sculpted images (in relief) of houses, businesses, and churches depicting the vanished neighborhood, plus inscribed 100 names—the “100 voices” of our book title—marking local women and men who were catalytic agents in the Black community.
The CMP had lots of moving parts. Lenwood Sloan marshalled forces in 2018-2020 to make it happen on numerous fronts all at once—coordinating with PA state legislators to get political support of state government for the installation, commissioning the artistic work of the sculpture, facilitating the historical research behind the monument and the story of the Eighth Ward, hosting monthly live and learn workshops and living history exhibitions, raising the funds for the monuments, and so on. Lots happening all at once. Lenwood assembled a core leadership team of 15 people including a couple of us from Messiah who were in constant communication. The project was all the better through its multiple facets.
Given our work on digitizing Harrisburg’s past, its space, and its City Beautiful Movement, Lenwood asked the Digital Harrisburg group and Messiah’s Center for Public Humanities to contribute to the historical research of the CMP. We began from the foundation of earlier historical research on the Old Eighth undertaken by Dr. Michael Barton, Stephanie Patterson Gilbert, and Penn State University-Harrisburg. We developed posters about the vanished Eighth Ward for display in the buildings of the Capitol complex, published articles about the CMP and the Old Eighth Ward, researched the 100 men and women whose names are listed on the monument, created photographic exhibits, and developed webpages and Story Maps with our partners at Harrisburg University of Science & Technology. It was a thrilling synergistic endeavor involving community historians, faculty and students, local artists, geospatial technologists, numerous volunteers, legislators, university administrators, descendants of the 100 men and women named in the monument, and lots of supporting institutions.
Our group recognized at a certain point that this monument to African American history would naturally raise questions about the names of 100 people listed on the pedestal. No one but a few people would know who these 100 people were—and we were worried that this information would be lost once everyone moved on. So Messiah University organized an effort to tell the stories of the One Hundred through our Digital Harrisburg website. Then, at a certain point last January, before we could imagine a pandemic shutting everything down or the racial uprisings of the next summer, Jean Corey (director of our center for public humanities), Katie Wingert McArdle (our project coordinator), and I sat down and had a conversation about whether we should try to make this into a little book. We knew it would be a lot of work, but just dove in because of its potential public value. So we coordinated an effort to research and write 100 biographical snapshots of the individuals who fought for freedom, equality, and opportunity for African Americans and, indeed, for all people. The idea was that we were going to publish this little book to distribute to the hundreds of people who would gather for the dedication of the monument in June 2020 at the state capital. Of course, when COVID made a home in central PA, we began to reimagine the project a digital book that could be disseminated via social media.
The book was the product of local financial support plus dozens of contributing researchers. Students at Messiah researched and drafted the templates through two courses: African American History taught by my colleague Jim LaGrand and the Center for Public Humanities student fellows program directed by colleague Jean Corey. Katie Wingert McArdle coordinated student work and ensured the research was done well. Each student researched several of the 100 names—and that effort got us in striking distance of being able to pull off the complete set. Other educators, such as one of our librarians, Sarah Myers, wrote the templates for another 20 names, and Katie and I worked to improve quality and fill in the gaps. And the Kindred Spirits Genealogy Working Group of Harrisburg wrote the biographic sketches of their own ancestors among the 100; they were awesome—so invested in the work. Our university’s senior administrators, including our university president, the VP of diversity affairs, and the dean of humanities, invested in Messiah’s work throughout the entire project and helped to fund the subvention that offset the cost of printing 500 copies. We also had a generous financial contribution from Highmark.
Our book’s lead editor, Calobe Jackson, Jr., is a well-respected local historian of the Black community who knows everything about Harrisburg’s history. He and several other community members provided information constantly out of their own deep knowledge of the city. They fact checked all of our biographical sketches. We also vetted the bios with descendants of the 100 voices to make sure we didn’t miss key details about their ancestors.
2. You attended the dedication ceremony for the Commonwealth Monument on August 26th. What was that event like? What was the mood?
It was moving and celebratory. It was not the event we originally imagined when the CMP was planning a dedication. Originally we expected 500-1000 people in attendance for a major ceremony just before Juneteenth. COVID brought constant postponement from June to August and intentional downsizing of crowds. The two-hour ceremony on August 26 involved perhaps two hundred people on the state park lawn. This was when case counts were significantly down (compared to the later fall) but there were still lots of precautions (six foot distancing, temperature checks, and mandatory masks) and some of our core group could not attend due to concern over the virus. It was an extremely powerful ceremony, involving speeches from members of the team, the mayor of Harrisburg, the governor and auditor general of Pennsylvania, state legislators, financial donors, and leaders of masonic lodges. The former bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Central PA closed it out with a dedicatory prayer about seeing God’s long arc of justice at work. The ceremony marked a fitting culmination to our collective efforts over the previous two years and signaled a moment of historical justice as the Commonwealth officially recognized the lost communities of the Old Eighth Ward demolished a century ago to make way for the Capitol Park.
3. As I worked on the book, I couldn’t help but get sucked into the characters presented in its pages. How did the project come up with this list? Do you have any particular favorites that really stand out to you?
By the time Messiah students began working on the project, the list of names was settled. Calobe Jackson, Jr., our lead editor, drafted the original version of the 100 names based on his own archival research and personal knowledge of Harrisburg history. In conversation with the broader team, he and Lenwood Sloan revised the list to make it more inclusive, especially ensuring that women made up one-third of the 100 (the monument, after all, was celebrating the 19th amendment as much as the 15th).
As one of the editors of the book, I had the good fortune to sit down for a short time with each of the 100 who each in their own ways had some clear positive effect on their worlds. There were just so many good examples of people of faith dedicated to working for freedom and justice. John Q. Adams, who grew up enslaved in Virginia, came to Harrisburg and taught himself to read and write, became a tireless advocate for the Underground Railroad and for civil rights. Hannah Braxton Jones, a property owner in the Old Eighth when few Black women owned property—who taught music, helped to found a Baptist church, led Sunday Schools, and organized temperance and suffrage movements in the city. Joseph L. Thomas, census enumerator, undertaker, and social activist who, at his death, invited comparison from local journalists with Frederick Douglass, who had worked constantly (like Douglass) at the Master’s bidding to improve human conditions. The proud and brilliant Esther Popel, future poet of the Harlem Renaissance, whose high school graduation photo we include in the book. The resilient Maude Coleman, interracial consultant to the Pennsylvania governor, who advocated tirelessly on behalf of Black communities across PA. Many other good stories, some of individuals who go on to have careers celebrated at the national level, others who quietly made a difference in their local worlds.
4. From an academic standpoint this project really stands as a kind of model for public history in the 21st century. I wonder whether you could elaborate on how the larger project worked to engage the public.
I think digital historians and humanists often think of their public role as mainly in providing access to their materials. That’s important work of course which is best outlined in Cohen and Rosenzweig’s Digital History. We’ve done lots of that with Digital Harrisburg, making historical documents and photographs available online, creating interactive maps that could be useful to the public, etc.. Our work on the CMP involved dissemination of knowledge through different kinds of media—building text-centered webpages centered on the history of the Old Eighth, image-centered historical exhibitions of photos of the neighborhood, and interactive tools such as Story Maps. For example, working with colleague Albert Sarvis, a professor of Geospatial Technology at Harrisburg University, we created an interactive swipe map of the Old Eighth Ward that gives street views (via historical photographs) of the Old Eighth Ward 110 years ago, and an interactive map showing the redlining practices that segregated the city in the 1930s. So, yeah, we created lots of content, including freely-available historical scholarship published in the journal Pennsylvania History.
This kind of work is important in its own way in creating the foundation for other kinds of public scholarship. But public history work is especially transformative and impactful when it works out of partnership in shared knowledge production. As Sheila Brennan has put it, the best public history work puts the “public, first.”
Messiah’s involvement in the CMP was specifically supported by a Mellon-funded Council of Independent Colleges Humanities Research for the Public Good grant in 2019-2020. That program required community partners be involved in project work from start to finish—defining the problem and setting the agenda and goals. So, the work of the Digital Harrisburg Initiative and the Center for Public Humanities came out of constant discussions with our friends at CMP. Sometimes we created products that Lenwood or others specifically asked us for, while at other times, we ran with our own ideas that we knew would enhance the common work and make the CMP more visible. Thus, we knew an interactive swipe map could give a view of what was lost in the city in the 1910s that is hard to visualize without good maps. We realized that a book about the 100 voices would aid in interpreting the new monument for the wider public and would also get the word out about the amazing people being celebrated. Our poster campaign called “Look Up, Look Out,” was the fruit of direct conversations between Lenwood Sloan and the Digital Harrisburg project coordinator Drew Hermeling—they came up with the idea of developing twelve physical posters that would tell the broader story of the Eighth Ward that could be set up in the buildings surrounding the Capitol Park. It was directed to the thousands of employees and visitors to the State Capitol who had no idea about the lost neighborhood that used to be next to the capitol. The CMP group put some of these posters up also at the local Amtrak station and recreated the posters for display on public buses and bus stations in the city. Some of my colleagues at Messiah worked with Sharia Benn of the Sankofa Theatre Company to support the research side of her brilliant original play on the Eighth Ward called Voices of the Eighth—Rhythms of Resilience.
I think the most important thing for us—as educators—was bringing our students into conversations with our partners and working toward common ends. Students were most invested in the work when they go to talk with the members of the CMP students and local descendants of the 100 voices. Our students participated in community conversations and workshops about African American history and the Old Eighth Ward and took part in poetry workshops with public school students. It was transformative for them to see humanities and historical research make such a difference.
5. The project also has a remarkable digital backbone in Digital Harrisburg. Can you talk a bit about the current and ongoing work of Digital Harrisburg?
That’s right. Our work grew out of two organizations at Messiah: the Digital Harrisburg Initiative (with our partnerships with Harrisburg University) and the Center for Public Humanities. It’s an ongoing initiative with lots of pieces. Explore our website for our range of activities. Right now our team is consolidating work over the last few years, uploading source materials related to the 100 voices, continuing to work on matters of race and place, and imagining new partnerships (a collection of source material, for example, with the State Library).
Finally, I know you have another book underway for The Digital Press, on a very different topic! Can you give folks a two or three sentence preview of that work-in-progress?
Yes! I’m working now on the publication of the Eastern Korinthia Archaeological Survey nearly two decades after its completion. Part 1 was publishing the datasets of the survey online via Open Context. That work is done and datasets are gradually being made available here: https://opencontext.org/projects/bc71c724-eb1e-47d6-9d45-b586ddafdcfe
Part 2 of my work is publishing a book-length manuscript presenting the results of the survey in a standard way. I’ve written 6 of 10 chapters a this point including a retrospective history of the project, a discussion of methods and datasets, reflections on surface scatters, general patterns of the surface record, and the Roman period. Check out my recent update here: https://corinthianmatters.org/2021/02/16/return-of-the-eastern-korinthia-survey/