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The neighborhood the Pa. Capitol destroyed

Plus, Pennsylvania everywhere all at once.

Welcome to PA Local, a free weekly newsletter about the great people, amazing places, and delicious food of Pennsylvania.

February 3, 2023
Inside this edition: The Stooges, everything's coming up Pennsylvania, cave cellar, lighthouse money, and the destruction of the Old Eighth Ward.
A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
The Three Stooges were no strangers to Pennsylvania, and the "world’s first and largest museum of Three Stooges memorabilia" can be found here. But where? Hint: It's a southeastern Pennsylvania borough. 

(Keep scrolling for the answer, but don't miss all the good stuff in between. Like what you read? Forward this email to a friend.)
Our five favorite Pennsylvania stories of the week.

» Two things worth knowing: Pennsylvania has never been more alive than it was this week. The Eagles won a trip to the Super Bowl (Feb. 12) and Philly went full goblin mode. Then Punxsutawney Phil made everyone mad and his counterparts only made it worse.

» One thing worth sharing: Richard Cucé of Bucks County won the auction for this historic lighthouse in the Chesapeake Bay with a $192,000 bid. "Everybody thought I was crazy,” he said. There might be good reason for that: The old lighthouse sits in a "danger zone."

» One thing worth reading: Inquirer scribe Jason Nark wrote in Alpinist about the loss of a childhood friend and the disappearance of a Pennsylvania climber that became a vehicle for his grief.

» One more thing worth reading: Trent Reznor is the grandson of a prominent Mercer industrialist and was born there himself. Belt Magazine talks the Nine Inch Nails frontman's "conflicted Rust Belt legacy."

» One thing worth seeing: The basement of an unassuming home in Greencastle contains a massive cave that you can tour — or do yoga inside of — for the first time in 70 years. Book it here.

QUIZ TIME: Another big week of Pennsylvania news is in the bag. Test your grip on the latest headlines from Harrisburg and around the state with the latest installment of Spotlight PA's weekly news quiz.
» COVID-19 UPDATE: Your guide to finding resources on cases, vaccines, and tests

» Scant evidence for Pa.'s top medical pot condition
» How we analyzed 1M medical pot certifications
» Some probation officers skip misconduct checks
» A gap in Penn State's mandated hazing report
» Pa. takes over troubled mortgage relief program
» Pa. schools arm officers with semi-automatic rifles
» Join our first 'How Harrisburg Works' virtual event
» Watch: A panel on Pa.'s patchwork of governments
A bronze sculpture showing a neighborhood from overhead.
Part of a bronze monument to Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward. (Governor Tom Wolf / Flickr)

Helen M. Lee was one of the last holdouts in Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward — a wrench in the gears of official plans to raze the neighborhood and build a grander state Capitol complex.

Lee owned four of the last five buildings — located on Walnut and Short Streets — that the commonwealth needed to carry out its plan.

First it had to find her.

According to researcher Rachel Williams, Lee’s properties had been condemned for the project, but she still held the titles. The local sheriff launched a fruitless search for her, and state officials — intent to finish clearing the impoverished neighborhood at the edges of the opulent Capitol — pressed a court to force the buildings from her hands.

“Many hours were spent in vain by the sheriff and his corps of three deputies in the neighborhoods where they thought Mrs. Lee might venture,” reads a frustrated-sounding notice that was published in the Evening News paper (paywall) on Oct. 17, 1917. 

“All this trouble is due to the fact that Mrs. Lee is unwilling to surrender her properties for the price offered by the Capitol Park Extension Commission.” 

Lee would ultimately hand over the keys to the deputy attorney general that following June. By that time, the Eighth Ward as they knew it — a Black, Jewish, and immigrant enclave comprising 20 blocks and thousands of residents at the turn of the century — was gone, the Capitol Park soon to take its place. It was the most diverse neighborhood in the city.

A pathway into Capitol Park and rows of large trees on both sides of the frame.
Capitol Park. (Wally Gobetz / Flickr)

“There’s not a brick, a rock, a cornice, or a cobblestone left — absolutely nothing,” Lenwood Sloan, a local activist and organizer, told Capital-Star in 2019. “Hundreds of workers come to the Capitol every day without knowing there was a proud African-American community that lived there.”

A monument to the erased neighborhood was unveiled in 2020, and the ward’s history is being told in other ways, including through a new play — Voices of the Eighth Chronicles II — by Sharia Benn, co-founder of Harrisburg’s Sankofa African American Theatre Company. 

Benn has previously written about the Old Eighth's entrepreneurs, advocates, abolitionists, and stars of the Harlem Renaissance.

Her latest work on the subject is on now through Feb. 12 at Harrisburg’s Gamut Theatre. It’s described as a blend of storytelling "that fuses imagery, movement, sound, and music to uplift the work of chain-breakers and change-makers from Harrisburg’s demolished Eighth Ward.”

“The Old Eighth Ward was about 60% European and about 40% African American,” Benn told PA Local by phone. “It was a vibrant community where African Americans owned property. They owned businesses. They were entrepreneurs. They were champions of change from the mid-1800s until about 1918, when the Old Eighth Ward was pretty much gone.”

An old black-and-white photo showing horse carriages parked along a street in Harrisburg.
The Old Eighth with the Capitol dome visible in the background. (Via Digital Harrisburg)

Benn’s work has leaned on a growing catalog of research, some of it showcased by Digital Harrisburg here, to introduce audiences and students to the people of the Old Eighth. It’s a long list that includes:

  • Esther Popel, a poet and the first African-American woman to graduate from Dickinson College. “But she couldn’t stay on campus, they wouldn’t allow her to,” Benn explained, “so she had to make her way from the Eighth Ward to Carlisle to go to class.” 
  • Alice Dunbar-Nelson, who published a major work, Masterpieces of Negro Eloquence. It was a collection of speeches by the likes of Frederick Douglass and Booker T. Washington. And like Popel, she was an influential figure in the Harlem Renaissance movement.
  • Thomas Morris Chester, who was America’s first Black war correspondent and covered the Civil War from the Virginia front lines for the white-owned Philadelphia Press newspaper.
  • Jacob Compton, a soldier, musician, and carriage driver who once “spirited Abraham Lincoln out of Harrisburg to evade assassination” on the eve of his inauguration in 1861.
  • There was also Catherine McClintock, a child of German parents who helped enslaved people escape bondage on the Underground Railroad; Jane M. Chester, who fled slavery to Harrisburg, where she helped others do the same; and writer, abolitionist, and temperance and suffrage activist Frances Ellen Watkins Harper.

All, at one time, called the Old Eighth home.

“Because that history is buried, lost, unknown, people locally have not discovered it, they didn't even know to look for their greatness through their ancestors in the Old Eighth Ward,” Benn said. “This is our history. This is Harrisburg history. This is American history.”

Learn more about Benn's Voices of the Eighth Chronicles II: Stories from Harrisburg’s Old Eighth Ward here.

Colin Deppen, PA Local editor 

"We confront it, and that huge fear goes away. We realize how we can control it. Students don’t want to be robbed of the product. They don’t."

—Point Park University Professor Chris Girman, one of several Pittsburgh-area instructors trying to embrace AI tools, like ChatGPT, in the classroom as some universities ban the technology over cheating concerns

Our favorite photo of the week submitted by a PA Local reader.

Fog on the Susquehanna River in Harrisburg, via Jim F. Send us your photos, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.

A foggy Susquehanna River in front of downtown Harrisburg.
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.
The Stoogeum, which bills itself as the "world’s first and largest museum of Three Stooges memorabilia," is located in Ambler, Montgomery County. 

The 10,000 square foot, three-story building contains over 10,000 pieces of Stooge stuff and draws thousands of visitors annually.

A New York Times reviewer was one of them in 2009, writing:

Life-size bellhop statues of the Stooges usher you in, and galleries are filled with memorabilia: movie posters, magazine covers, a 1980s video game, comic books and displays of new acquisitions. There’s a ceramic cat made by Moe, rare family photographs of Curly, and Larry’s driver’s license.

The museum was created by Gary Lassin, who married the great-niece of Philadelphian Larry Fine — yes, that Larry — in 1981.

Thanks for reading PA Local! We'll see you back here next week. But first ... send us your feedback. What did you like? What didn't you like? 
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