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STORY IDEAS: African American History in PA's Hershey & Harrisburg Region

Person taking a photo of a mural featuring a Black woman

The Hershey & Harrisburg Region has a long and storied past that often relates in fascinating or unexpected ways to some of the most important aspects, events, and iconic African American figures throughout Black History in America.

Editor's Note:

(Updated 1.25.23) The following are "evergreen" story ideas and notes that are always available to media and visitors. Check our Calendar of Events to see what special events are scheduled in the region to celebrate Black History Month each year. Also see The Black Travel Experience - a VHH Cultural Trail connecting Black travelers to businesses, experiences, landmarks, and stories that highlight the region’s diversity and notable, culturally-significant moments in history.  

Lincoln Cemetery

The Lincoln Cemetery was founded by the Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church in 1817 as an African American burial ground in the Harrisburg area. The land was purchased a year after the congregation was established and it was officially named Lincoln Cemetery in 1827.

In the years leading up to the Civil War, the congregation at Wesley Union was active in the Underground Railroad, which cut through the area. Many Civil War veterans are buried in Lincoln Cemetery, including Harrisburg’s last surviving veteran Ephraim Slaughter who died in 1943 after serving in both the 37th regiment of the U.S. Colored Troops and the 3rd N.C. Colored Infantry.

Lincoln Cemetery is also the burial ground for several notable members of the Harrisburg community including African-American war correspondent T. Morris Chester; abolitionist, educator, and newspaper publisher William Howard Day; and Harriett "Ma" McClintock Marshall who assisted with the care and education of the escaped slaves traveling on the Underground Railroad Stop located in the old Wesley Church, which was also a school for black children at the time.

William Howard Day Cemetery

Following the death of William Howard Day on December 3, 1900, at the age of 75, the William Howard Day Cemetery was established in nearby Steelton as a burial place for all people, including people of color who were denied burial at the nearby Baldwin Cemetery. It remains a popular burial site for local African American families.

Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial

This memorial garden dedicated to Dr. King is located along the Harrisburg Capital Area Greenbelt bike path between 19th and 28th Streets.

MLK Memorial Capital Greenbelt Harrisburg PA

ABOVE: The centerpiece of the garden is an 11-ft black granite obelisk and a kiosk featuring a copy of Dr. King's inspirational speech "I Have a Dream."

The memorial garden features an 11-ft black granite obelisk and a kiosk featuring a copy of Dr. King's inspirational speech "I Have a Dream." which he delivered to a crowd of 250,000 from the steps of the Lincoln Memorial during the March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom in Washington, DC on August 28, 1963.

Five years later, the American civil rights leader would be assassinated at the age of 39 on the balcony of the Lorraine Motel in Memphis on April 4, 1968.

Historical Markers

C. Delores Tucker (1927—2005)

C. Delores Tucker was a civil rights leader and activist for women, and the first African American Secretary of State in the nation. Tucker championed the PA Equal Rights Amendment and policies on affirmative action, voter registration by mail, and lowering the voting age to 18.

Delores Tucker also spearheaded the creation of the Commission on the Status of Women and led a successful crusade critical of the music industry and lyrics demeaning to women, African Americans, and children.

The roadside historical marker dedicated in 2006 is located at North Street in Harrisburg between 3rd & Commonwealth.

William Howard Day

See more about this African-American abolitionist, educator, and newspaper publisher above. The historical marker dedicated in 1997 is located at Lincoln & Carlisle Streets in the town of Steelton, just outside of Harrisburg.

Thomas Morris Chester

See more about this historic war correspondent above. The historical marker dedicated in 1986 is located at Market Street near 3rd Street in Harrisburg. 

In 2022, the City of Harrisburg officially designated part of Walnut Street near the PA Capitol Complex between Commonwealth Avenue and Front Street as "T. Morris Chester Way" to honor the nation's first Black correspondent. 

Commonwealth Monument Project

The Commonwealth Monument Project installed “A Gathering At The Crossroads: For Such A Time As This” at 4th and Walnut in 2020. The monument is dedicated to Harrisburg's Old 8th Ward, where many Black and immigrant families lived before it was demolished to build the Capitol complex. The figures closet to the pedestal are William Howard Day and suffragist Frances E.W. Harper. Looking on are representations of Jacob T. Compton, a sergeant of the 24th United States Colored Infantry (USCT) and local musician, and T. Morris Chester. 

Bronze figures representing historic Black Americans in Harrisburg


Wilt Chamberlain's Scoring Record

Wilt Chamberlain set the single-game scoring record in the NBA (National Basketball Assoc.) by scoring 100 points for the Philadelphia Warriors in a 169–147 win over the New York Knicks on March 2, 1962, at Hershey Sports Arena in Hershey, Pennsylvania.

It is widely considered one of the greatest records in basketball. Chamberlain set five other league records that game including most free throws made, a notable achievement, as he was regarded as a poor free throw shooter. The teams broke the record for most combined points in a game (316).

The game was not televised, and no video footage of the game has been recovered; there are only audio recordings of the game's fourth quarter. The NBA was not yet a major sports league and struggled to compete against college basketball. The attendance at this game was around half of capacity, and no members of the New York press were at the game.

The historical marker dedicated in 2002 is located along the road at 100 Hersheypark Drive near the Hersheypark Arena in Hershey.

Harrisburg Giants Baseball Club

The Harrisburg Giants were a U.S. professional Negro league baseball team based in Harrisburg.

They joined the Eastern Colored League (ECL) for the 1924 season with notable players as Hall of Fame center fielder Oscar Charleston as playing manager, outfielder/first baseman Heavy Johnson who won the batting triple crown the previous year while playing with the Kansas City Monarchs, and the speedy outfielder Fats Jenkins who was also a well-known professional basketball player and member of the New York Rens.

The roadway historical marker dedicated in 2005 is located between Walnut Street Bridge and the Senators Baseball Park on City Island.

Lincoln Cemetery

See more about this cemetery above. The historical marker dedicated in 1994 is located at 30th Street & Booser Avenue in Penbrook.

U.S. Colored Troops Grand Review 1865

More than 180,000 African Americans served in the Union Army during the American Civil War, including 11 regiments from Pennsylvania.

In November 1865, the city of Harrisburg hosted a Grand Review parade for the regiments of the United States Colored Troops (USCT) who were not invited earlier that year to march in the Grand Review for Union armies along Pennsylvania Avenue in Washington, D.C. for President Andrew Johnson.

Thomas Morris Chester, Harrisburg's most distinguished African American at the time, served as grand marshal for the parade which formed at State and Filbert Streets, now Soldier's Grove.

The procession traveled through Harrisburg to the home of U.S. Senator and President Lincoln's former secretary of war Simon Cameron.


ABOVE: Cameron officially reviewed the troops from his front porch (pictured above) and thanked them for their service to the nation.

Others who spoke at this event included Octavius V. Catto, an African American educator and USCT recruiter from Philadelphia; William Howard Day, abolitionist and clergyman; and Brevet Major General Joseph B. Kiddoo, former commander of the 22nd Regiment USCT.

This event marks Pennsylvania as the only state to officially honor black soldiers for their service immediately following the Civil War. The historical marker dedicated in 2006 is located at Soldier's Grove behind the PA Capitol Complex on Walnut Street and 7th Street across from the State Street Bridge.

Underground Railroad

Harrisburg's prominent role in the advance of the Union cause leading to the Civil War was particularly evident by its sympathy in harboring former slaves who had escaped servitude from the South.

As early as 1836, the Harrisburg Anti-Slavery Society was founded and in 1847 the group brought noted reformers William Lloyd Garrison and Frederick Douglas to hold a rally at the Dauphin County Courthouse.

During this period, Harrisburg became a key station in the "Underground Railroad" which stretched from Maryland northward to Canada.

While many secretly opened their doors to provide haven to escapees who under federal law could be reclaimed by their "owners," sections of the old Eighth Ward neighborhood, which once stood behind the PA Capitol Building, and homes on Tanners Avenue in particular, became later known as a nucleus of this activity.

Located at the corner of Tanners Avenue and South Street, near the present southern entrance to the South Office building stood the church of Harrisburg's oldest African American congregation, the Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion Church.

Founded in 1829 from an earlier organization dating to 1817, the congregation first met in a log building at S. Third and Mulberry Streets. Its presence at Tanners Avenue and South Street was first established in 1838 when a one-story brick building was constructed. This was replaced by a larger building in 1862 that was remodeled in 1886.

The final church at this location was built in 1894, although demolished in 1915 for the expansion of Capitol Park. After two additional moves, Wesley Church survives today at Fifth and Camp Streets in Uptown Harrisburg and continues its tradition of community outreach and service.

The historical marker dedicated in 2000 is in Capitol Park on Walnut Street near Commonwealth Avenue in Harrisburg.

The African American Oral History Project: Part One

In 2018, The National Civil War Museum in Harrisburg released a one-hour online video entitled “The African American Oral History Project: Part One” featuring the voices of African Americans from the American Civil War through Reconstruction, to modern times.

4th USCT at Camp Lincoln

ABOVE: Image of 4th USCT at Camp Lincoln in Worcester, MA courtesy of NationalCivilWarMuseum.org.

One of the personal stories is of Robert Smalls, a former slave who went on to serve as a United States Congressman from South Carolina. The film also spotlights the personal struggles and triumphs of many others in the African American community located in south central Pennsylvania.


Author: Visit Hershey & Harrisburg

Visit Hershey & Harrisburg
3211 North Front Street, Suite 301 A, Harrisburg, PA 17110