A century and a half ago, Harrisburg’s 8th Ward was a thriving neighborhood with 1,000 families and more than 500 businesses. It was a melting pot of African Americans, Jews and immigrants from such countries as Ireland and Germany. The neighborhood disappeared long ago to make way for the Capitol complex. The land was seized through eminent domain and the families moved on to new lives elsewhere.
What is the best way to honor a neighborhood that no longer exists? How can the people who lived there — often the people history ignores — be recognized?
Art Research Enterprises in East Hempfield Township, a producer of fine art castings and fabrications, is doing just that.
The art foundry’s co-founder Becky Ault has created the first piece of an ambitious project honoring the 8th Ward, the 100th anniversary of women getting the right to vote and the 150th anniversary of African Americans getting the right to vote.
The sculpture is the latest project from International Institute for Peace through Tourism, a network of peace parks throughout the world. The Harrisburg group first focused on saving and restoring monuments along Riverfront Park.
The group shifted its focus to make a new monument for a few reasons, says project director Lenwood Sloan. The sculpture will commemorate the anniversaries of the 15th and 19th amendments to the U.S. Constitution that gave African Americans and women the right to vote, respectively.
It honors a neighborhood that is long gone and it salutes the people who lived there.
Last summer, the group vetted 10 possible sculptors. Ault presented her ideas last and they liked her vision, Sloan says.
To find clues about the old 8th Ward, the peace group’s historians combed archives.
They discovered photographs and lithographs in records kept by Dauphin County Historical Society, Pennsylvania State Archives, the State Library of Pennsylvania and Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission. Using these resources, Ault imagined what the neighborhood was like at its peak.
The group wanted to include a roster of 100 people from the neighborhood, people left out of history “because they’re just carpenters or just plumbers or just roofers,” Sloan says. “The ‘just’ part gets me. Because they had families, they had churches. They had a community. They were lodge members. They served their country. They weren’t ‘just.’ ”
Placing the names on a plaque or bricks on the ground was too much like a graveyard, Ault says. So she lifted the names onto the sides of the pedestal.
The group struggled to discover women in records. Often, women are hidden in property records or newspaper stories, especially those of the late 1800s and early 1900s.
They were able to find 30 women for the list.
The women include Harriett Harrison, a teacher; Jane Chester, a restaurateur; and Gwendolyn Bennett, an artist and poet. There also are Sylvester Burrus, a musician; Theodore Frye, a hotel owner; and Layton Howard, a publisher.
The sides of the pedestal show scenes from the neighborhood and significant buildings, now long-gone. St. Lawrence Catholic Church is now the site of the Forum. There’s the East Markethouse.
Another side has the Lincoln School and a railroad station, where Abraham Lincoln stopped twice. The first time was on the way to his inauguration, and the second was his funeral train.
Ault added architectural details throughout, such as molding and cobblestones.
And on top, she formed a 3D map of the neighborhood.
A lot of detail is on the pedestal, which eventually will be surrounded by four life-sized bronze figures when the piece is complete.
This summer, the pedestal will be in Strawberry Square.
“We thought because Pennsylvania was a year ahead (in granting women the right to vote), we would preview the pedestal in hopes that people would recognize their families,” Sloan says.
A website, digitalharrisburg.com, has information about the roster of 100 and a link for people to share more about their lives. After Labor Day, the pedestal will return to Ault’s studio.
When the entire piece is finished, it will be placed at Fourth and Walnut streets in Harrisburg. It’s a central spot that’s an entrance to the Capital complex and a spot where several public transportation routes meet.
In the past, it was the gateway to the neighborhood, Sloan says.
Explaining the location makes the title, “A Gathering at the Crossroads,” even more clear. The monument will be where government meets the city, where the old town meets the new town. The figures represent crossroads in a country’s march to extending freedoms to all, regardless of race or gender.
For Ault to move forward to create the rest of the monument, the group needs to raise money. The entire project, including the sculpture, administration and public programs, will cost $400,000.
The peace group would like to unveil the sculpture next June, to commemorate Juneteenth — the nationally celebrated commemoration of the end of slavery — and the anniversaries of the two constitutional amendments.
In the meantime, Ault will sculpt the figures of Thomas Morris Chester, the first African American to be a war correspondent; Frances Watkins Harper, the mother of African American journalism; William Howard Day, the first African American school board president; and Jacob Compton, a pastor who drove Lincoln’s carriage. After some discussion, they decided Harper will be the one holding a copy of the 15th amendment.
“We’re definitely going to sculpt an expression in her face that says at the same time jubilation but at the same time ‘I still have a lot of work to do here,’ ” Ault says.
What does that look like?
“I will figure it out,” she says.