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Blog Post

Student Voices: The Commonwealth Monument Project

By Chloe Dickson, Anna Strange
 | 
November 17, 2020
*Student Voices:* The Commonwealth Monument Project

Harrisburg, PA’s Old Eighth Ward at the beginning of the 20th century. Photograph by John D. Lemer, ca. 1911. Image courtesy of the Pennsylvania State Archives.

This is the third in a series of blog posts from students who participated in publicly engaged humanities projects funded through Humanities Research for the Public Good (HRPG) grants from the Council of Independent Colleges, supported by the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation. In this post, Chloe Dickson and Anna Strange of Messiah University write about the Commonwealth Monument Project, which brought together students, staff, faculty, and community members to tell the stories of 100 agents of change who are featured on the monument itself.

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Messiah University’s Digital Harrisburg Initiative and Center for Public Humanities used our funding from the CIC’s Humanities Research for the Public Good grant to partner with the International Institute for Peace Through Tourism on the Commonwealth Monument Project (CMP). The monument, “A Meeting at the Crossroads,” is located on the capitol lawn in Harrisburg, PA. The monument highlights individuals who were agents of change in the Eighth Ward, a historically diverse Harrisburg neighborhood that was destroyed to make room for capitol extension projects in the early 20th century. These individuals were influential in the passing of the 15th and 19th Amendments, active in the Underground Railroad, church associations, women’s suffrage, local and state politics, and more. Using archival research, newspaper articles, artifacts from descendants and oral histories, we uncovered stories about these 100 agents of change from the Eighth Ward. We published our research in a book of 100 short biographies of the individuals featured on the monument titled “One Hundred Voices: Harrisburg's Historic African American Community, 1850-1920.”

“A Meeting at the Crossroads”. Image courtesy of the Messiah University Center for Public Humanities.

As student fellows, we had the honor of learning so much from a year of intensive work of research and collaboration.

  • Anna: Researching these individuals gave me insight into the history of racial disparity, inequity, and inequality in Harrisburg while simultaneously allowing me to see the impact that these ‘100 Voices’ had on the systemic injustice around them. I realized the importance of learning about the place and space in which I live and learn. Instead of seeing Harrisburg as just a city near my college campus, I gained a deeper understanding of the capital city of Pennsylvania. As I explored this history, I was excited and cognizant of the responsibility of passing along this information to my fellow students.
  • Chloe: The opportunity to uncover the rich history of Harrisburg through the Eighth Ward and its residents increased my own understanding of the local and national past. As our project celebrates the 15th and 19th Amendments, we also celebrate the fact that the Commonwealth Monument is the first monument to celebrate African Americans in Harrisburg. While this project gave me a deeper connection to Harrisburg, it connects broadly with thousands of stories of displacement due to race and social class throughout the nation.

Our research within and around the community of the Eighth Ward reached wide audiences and had great public engagement. At Messiah, two classes integrated the CMP into their coursework. Students in an African American history class researched some individuals from the monument. We guided them through the research process, helping with complications like common names and conflicting or sparse records. During a Public History class we took in January, we created six academic posters that introduced our project and highlighted a few of the women on the monument. We presented them at our Humanities Symposium to fellow students, as well as the community and faculty audience of our keynote lecture. Additionally, the posters were displayed at an original play titled “Voices of the Eighth: Rhythms of Resilience,” written by local playwright Sharia Benn with our research as the basis of her work. The production highlighted the importance of the U.S. Census and significance of the 15th and 19th Amendments. Students from Harrisburg public schools attended the play with talk-back sessions during the week while the public had two weekends to see the performance and explore our exhibit.

Some of the fellows from the Center for Public Humanities meeting with Lenwood Sloan and Calobe Jackson Jr., co-collaborators of the Commonwealth Monument Project. Image courtesy of the Messiah University Center for Public Humanities.

Completing such significant work and seeing it grow through public engagement was an experience unlike any other. While COVID-19 cut our in-person work short, the amount of public interaction we were able to have before shut-down was extremely valuable and fulfilling. On August 26, 2020, the monument was officially dedicated and while the stories of the people of the Eighth have begun to be told, it is now critical that they continue to be listened to.

Chloe Dickson graduated from Messiah University in May of 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in history, concentration in public history, and a minor in political science. Anna Strange graduated from Messiah University in May of 2020 with a bachelor’s degree in history, concentration in administrative studies, and a minor in anthropology.

Read more about our research partnership with CIC on the National Humanities Alliance blog.

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