The “7th Ward Oral History Project: Discovering Our Treasures” was recently honored with a reception at LancasterHistory for the work it’s doing to preserve the culture and personal stories of a diverse Lancaster city neighborhood, Mary Ellen Wright reported in the Aug. 25 Sunday LNP. A committee of nine retirees has been interviewing dozens of people from African American, Jewish and immigrant households who grew up in the southeast between 1930 and 1980.
The word “history” when applied to the American experience usually conjures up pivotal, iconic moments like the signing of the Declaration of Independence or Martin Luther King Jr.’s “I have a dream” speech before the Lincoln Memorial at the 1963 March on Washington.
We don’t normally think of everyday life as having historical value.
But the “7th Ward Oral History Project: Discovering Our Treasures” is a key part of Lancaster city’s 277-year record and a window into a community within a community.
We praise the committee for organizing and following through on this ambitious undertaking and appreciate everyone who shared their anecdotes. We hope the ongoing project will feature more interviews, including from the neighborhood’s Latino residents and other groups.
The remembrances so far aren’t all sunny; there’s the pain of racism and segregation, but a lot of pride as well.
Here are a few of the stories, as reported by Wright:
— Gerald Wilson, a historian and retired city police officer:
“In the summer, we played baseball every day. ... There was an empty lot at the corner of Christian and Dauphin. Home plate was a rock. The bases were either an oyster shell or a flattened tin can.”
— Retired Millersville University professor Leroy Hopkins:
“Though I moved out of the 7th Ward, the 7th Ward was the center of my life, because at the end of North Street is Bethel A.M.E. Church. I was a Sunday school teacher and later a trustee.
“... I discovered the county library. I couldn’t find a summer job. And most of the businesses were not hiring young black people. So I spent my summers reading. I got to where I could read four books a day. I went through all their mysteries and Westerns, and finally science fiction, which I still read today.”
— Betty Hurdle, a retired housing and community advocate:
“I liked living in the community, because it WAS a community. Everybody knew everybody, and it didn’t matter what your household composition was. ... I still have friends today from our childhood.”
— Consultant Thelma Geier Zellen of Chestnut Hill, Massachusetts:
“My father had a tailor shop on Duke Street, and we lived in the apartment above. ... My father used to get a daily Jewish newspaper. And there were some (African American customers) who could read Yiddish, and they would come in and read the newspapers.
“There were a doctor and dentist on South Duke Street who were black. ... We went to them. My father said, ‘They’re our customers and we’re their customers.’ ”
Hurdle told LNP: “Our history is like a fine painting that’s been put in the closet and left in the dark. We need to bring it out, we need to frame it, we need to hang it up so everyone knows we’re an important part of this community.”
This is an important point, elegantly stated. The history of the 7th Ward needs not only to be framed for posterity’s sake, but also reframed so the whole of the picture is better understood.
“The 7th Ward had a very negative connotation,” project manager Elizabeth Ford, a retired advocate with the National Association for the Education of Young Children, told Wright. “(People thought) this is where all the ‘criminals’ live, and the poverty was so high. Now, there were other communities that were going through the same economic challenges that we were, but because we were people of color, we just got the negative press.
“So I wanted to leave a legacy for young people to know that there were some dynamic people that grew up in this same quadrant and truly contributed a lot to the growth and development of Lancaster.”
Ford wrote a proposal and showed it to the Rev. Louis Butcher, retired senior pastor of Bright Side Baptist Church, and Hopkins.
Both men gave it the green light. They joined Ford’s committee and suggested other retirees as members.
The group received a $10,000 grant from the Lancaster County Community Foundation, through LancasterHistory, for travel, filming, recording and editing expenses.
The committee also has interviewed several members of the Jewish community — descendants of Eastern European immigrants — who attended Congregation Degel Israel when it was at South Duke and Locust streets. The synagogue moved to Columbia Avenue in 1964.
In his video interview, Eugene Stein recalled how he was raised to respect everyone, “regardless of skin color,” and how well the various groups got along in the 7th Ward. (If only everyone were raised as Stein was.)
The group’s website contains a video that’s a compilation of some of the interviews. Eventually, the committee hopes all the video and audio interviews will be edited and available through the website. The project is applying for additional grant money.
“There’s a fabulous story that has to be told about what went on in the 7th Ward — good and bad,” Hopkins told LNP. “That’s all part of our history.”
Indeed it is.
We are impressed at how far the project has progressed, and with the breadth of experiences that have been shared. We look forward to hearing much more in the months and years to come about “Discovering Our Treasures.”