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Harrisburg's (almost) lost Black history

Plus, good eats, cool things, and single cities.

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

February 16, 2024
Inside this edition: Single city, coolest things, Abbott Elementary returns, the Cooper farm, best restaurant, and Harrisburg Black history.
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A Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

Which Pennsylvania city was declared the "most single" in all of America this Valentine's week? 

A. Erie
B. Philadelphia
C. Pittsburgh
D. Allentown

(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.

» One nomination worth making: Nominations are now open for the PA Chamber's 2024 “Coolest Thing Made in Pennsylvania” contest. We wrote about the last one and its controversial finish here.

» One renewal worth cheering: The beloved Philly-based sitcom Abbott Elementary has been renewed for a 4th season on ABC. Season three just premiered with big changes for a lead character and bigger cameos.

» One neighbor worth knowing: Actor and Montgomery County native Bradley Cooper has dropped $6.5 million for a farm near New Hope and girlfriend Gigi Hadid's family. The New York Post has photos.

» One story worth sharing: Lancaster County children's book author Diana Jules-Peene faced repeated rejections from publishers on her search for a deal, so she started her own publishing company, per FOX43.

» Three eateries worth trying: York's Viet Thai Cafe is one of USA Today's restaurants of the year for 2024. The list also includes Doro Bet in Philadelphia and The Speckled Egg Cafe in New Hope.

🤔 PA NEWS QUIZ: Think you know what's happening in Pennsylvania? Prove it with the latest Great PA News Quiz: 2024 ballots, flawed election claims, 'spring' snow, and Shapiro's debt eraser.
The top stories published by Spotlight PA this week.
» Wartime Israeli bond buy roils PA treasurer's race

» Powerful gambling interests war over skill games

» Dems keep state House control in special election

» Courts settle over 'lose-lose' addiction rules

» Shapiro took $1.7K worth of free tix from lobbyist

» We traced false election claims to one PA activist

» Penn State trustees push 'Joe Paterno Field' proposal

» Learn about PA’s popular Whole-Home Repairs Program
The Jackson Rooming House mural. (Image submitted)

In the first half of the 20th century, when Harrisburg was a hotspot for jazz, a local hotel became a haven for Black icons like Billie Holiday and Louis Armstrong, who sought a place to stay after shows and found few options due to segregation. 

Now, two Harrisburg theater groups have a new play telling the history of the Jackson Rooming House. The production shares the hotel’s fascinating story and preserves its memory in the aftermath of the building's recent demolition.

The Jackson Rooming House: Music’s Resting Place is co-presented by Harrisburg’s Gamut Theatre Group and the Sankofa African American Theatre Company. The play tells the story of rooming house founder German Jackson —  the son of slaves who became one of the city’s most prosperous Black entrepreneurs — and his wife Betty. They opened their hotel in 1925 to accommodate Black travelers.

The hotel would be featured in the Green Book, a guide published between 1936 and 1966 to help Black patrons find welcoming restaurants, gas stations, department stores, and other businesses. 

The play, which runs through Feb. 25 at Gamut Theatre, tells the rooming house’s story with songs spanning the musical styles of the 1920s through the 1960s. 

The fictionalized account follows a group of teens stumbling inside the Jackson House, where they meet up with two people, Sun and Shine, who visit once a year to get in touch with the spirits of famous musicians who once lodged there.

“It is an intro to the richness we have locally and how Harrisburg was a destination,” Sankofa’s founding artistic director, Sharia Benn, told PA Local. “It was such a rich and vibrant entertainment, economic, and education center for decades. I want the people to know those stories and understand that.”

PA Local previously highlighted Benn’s play about Harrisburg’s Old 8th Ward, the neighborhood the state Capitol destroyed. It was the most diverse neighborhood in the city, comprising 20 blocks and thousands of residents at the turn of the century. By the early 1900s, it was gone, razed to make way for a grander Capitol complex.

Benn said she found out about the Jackson House from a gig with the Pennsylvania Past Players, a group that performs historical Pennsylvania stories. 

But digging through the archives for information on the place proved difficult. Benn said she had to piece together information from oral stories passed down through generations, due to a lack of documentation. She even traveled to Philadelphia and Baltimore to find historical Black newspaper clippings that may contain relevant stories. 

“Finding a photo of the Jackson House when it isn't boarded up — I haven't been able to find photos from that time. Even looking through newspaper clippings, I have to remember that the news in the ‘20s was very carefully curated and our stories weren't a priority,” Benn said.

Preserving the information she was able to find became her priority.

“We got it recorded and memorialized so we could keep telling these stories,” she added.

Clark Nicholson, founding artistic director of Gamut Theatre, said he encouraged Benn to do a show about the Jackson House four years ago.

“When she did her show about the Eighth Ward, I told her, ‘You should do the Jackson House,’” he recalled.

Nicholson applied his music history expertise to the show, which explores the evolution of Black song styles and traditions. He said the audience will get to hear jazz, blues, big band, gospel, and more throughout the play. Some of the featured songs include Sam Cooke’s “A Change Is Gonna Come,” Chuck Berry’s “Maybellene,” and Louis Armstrong’s “What a Wonderful World.” Watch snippets here.

The show extends the memory of the Jackson House, which lost its cachet as time went on. Ownership of the building switched several times before German Jackson died in 1998.

Later, the building was demolished in 2021 for safety reasons, following a partial collapse. 

Nicholson said that context underscores the importance of the show: “We wanted to write about it since it was erased physically, and we didn’t want people to forget about it.”

Tanisha Thomas, newsletter writer / reporter

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A quote from a Pennsylvanian that we found interesting this week.

"Punxsutawney Phil, get ready to learn chinese buddy."

X user @AnthonyDabbundo, referencing this meme, after heavy snowfall in parts of Pennsylvania this week; Phil predicted an early spring weeks ago

Our favorite reader-submitted photo of the week.
Birds hanging out on snow-covered branches in South Whitehall Township, Lehigh County, this week, via Sharon H. Send us your photos by email, use #PAGems on Instagram, or tag us @spotlightpennsylvania.
Birds gathered on the branches of a snow-covered bush
The answer to this week's Pennsylvania-centric trivia question.

The correct answer is B. Philadelphia.

The Inquirer reports the City of Brotherly Love is the most single big city in the United States, according to data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, for 2018 to 2022, the latest reporting period.

The paper adds: "It isn’t crystal clear why, but poverty, transportation woes, and transience don’t help."

Also this week: USA Today declared Pennsylvania the state with the highest rate of adults who've never married. About one in four adults in the state have never tied the knot, and Business Insider says that's OK.

Thanks for reading. We'll see you back here next week.

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