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Thursday, December 5, 2013

December 5, 2013: Harrisburg Histories: Communal Activism, Then and Now

[In October, I had the chance to visit Harrisburg (PA) for the first time, and to start to learn about the city’s rich and complex histories. This week, I’ll highlight five responses to some of what I encountered in Pennsylvania’s capitol city.]

On one of the best parts of a city’s history, and its echo in a contemporary moment.
My last couple posts have focused quite a bit on negative aspects of Harrisburg, at least in its present situation and issues. That’s of course connected to the kinds of struggles facing American cities more generally, ones embodied quite clearly in Harrisburg’s recent and ongoing challenges. But while no AmericanStudier can or should ignore those difficult present realities, it’d be equally reductive and inaccurate to think about Harrisburg or any American city through only (or even primarily) that lens. The truth, as I hope this week’s series has illustrated, is that our cities are full of complex but also rich and meaningful histories and stories, and that they too inform and contribute to and help shape the present and future of these American spaces.
In Harrisburg, as in many Northern cities and communities, one prominent but also easily overlooked such history is that of the Underground Railroad. As best I can tell, the city’s significant role in that vital network is represented by a single Historical Marker, located near the Capitol building and highlighting how by 1850 the nearby Tanner’s Alley (or Tanner’s Lane) neighborhood housed much of the city’s sizeable African American community (about 12 percent of the 1850 population) and became the site of these abolitionist activities. As was usually the case, the city’s Underground Railroad depended on a combination of local African American leaders (such as Joseph Bustill and William “Pap” Jones in Harrisburg), regional African American abolitionists (such as Philadelphia’s William Still), and on a network of sympathetic white supporters (such as Daniel Kaufman and Stephen Weakly in this area of Pennsylvania), making it a truly communal activist history.
The timing of my visit to Harrisburg in October happened to coincide with the 2013 Making Strides Against Breast Cancer walk, which started and ended on the beautiful City Island in the Susquehanna River. I walked down from my hotel and along the river the morning of the walk and saw the sizeable crowds gathering for the event, and I was particularly struck by both their numbers (downtown Harrisburg felt a little quieter than I expected otherwise) and their diversity (in a city that, like most American urban spaces these days, feels racially and ethnically segregated to a degree). Harrisburg is of course not alone in featuring such walks—quite the opposite, they can be found in virtually every American city—and I suppose that’s precisely my point: genuinely communal activism, the kind that unites us across all sorts of arbitrary boundaries and differences, is alive and well, in Harrisburg as in America more generally. No matter how bleak things might seem at times, for our cities and for our nation, we would do well to remember and highlight such activisms, past and present.
Final Harrisburg history tomorrow,
PS. What do you think?

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