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The churches of the Old Eighth Ward were more than just houses of worship. They served as sites of community cohesion, provided primary schooling for many of the ward’s children, and hosted organizers, politicians, and abolitionists.
Wesley Union AME Zion Church was in many ways the heart of the African-American community in the Old Eighth Ward. Originally established in a log cabin at Third and Mulberry streets, the larger brick church at the corner of Tanner Alley and South Street was built in 1839. The Rev. David Stevens grew the early congregation, overseeing an expansion of their property. The Rev. Jacob D. Richardson established a school in the church to meet the needs of the ward’s students. The church continued to grow, requiring new buildings to be built on the same site in 1862 and again in 1894. The church also hosted leading intellectuals and abolitionists, including Frederick Douglass and William Lloyd Garrison. In 1837, the church hosted a meeting of the Anti-Slavery Society as well as the Statewide Convention for Colored Citizens in 1848. Further, the congregation was instrumental in providing refuge to freedom seekers escaping enslavement in the South. Other distinguished members of the congregation included William Howard Day and John P. Scott.
Bethel AME Church was another vibrant African-American congregation in the Old Eighth Ward. The congregation had grown considerably as African-Americans who had earned their emancipation flocked into the Old Eighth Ward. The congregation worked hard to provide housing for the new arrivals and connected them with work opportunities in the local coal, iron, and steel industries. After the passage of the 15th Amendment in 1871, the church also worked hard to register new voters and provide civic education to the ward’s citizens.
Not all migrants into the Old Eighth Ward were African-American. Predominantly Catholic German immigrants also formed the religious fabric of the community. While a Catholic congregation was already established where St. Patrick’s Cathedral stands today, the German population found that they needed instruction in their native language. Thus, St. Lawrence German Catholic church was established. Originally located on Front Street, a larger church was constructed along Walnut Street, dedicated in 1878. Alongside the congregation, members of the Sisters of Christian Charity established a home, taking over teaching duties at the parochial school connected with the congregation.
While he did not live in the Old Eighth Ward, it is also worth noting that a popular hymn-writer, piano and music teacher, and publisher of hymnals, J. H. Kurtzenknabe, an orphaned immigrant from Germany, operated his printing business, Kurtzenknabe Printing for a time at the corner of Short and South Streets. (This corner was the famed “Frisby Battis Corner” that featured prominently in Old Eighth Republican politics.) Kurtzenknabe was most famous for his Sunday School hymnals, many of which were printed in the Old Eighth Ward.
Many other church communities also served the Old Eighth Ward. Second Baptist Church, located just outside the ward along Cameron Street drew many of its congregants from the citizens of the ward. Members of that congregation–many of whom lived either in or near the Old Eighth–left along with its pastor to establish St. Paul Baptist Church, also located on Cameron Street. The First Free Baptist Church was located on the same block as Wesley Union AME Zion
Jacob Compton, the great-grandfather of local musician Jimmy Wood, played an important role in the history of one America’s most beloved presidents; he “spirited Abraham Lincoln out of Harrisburg to evade assassination.” Other than the final attempt that took his life, there were at least five other attempted assassinations of President Abraham Lincoln. One took place even before he took office. In late February of 1861 as he traveled to Washington D.C. from his home in Springfield, Illinois. One of his stops included Harrisburg, and the people of the capital city gathered to see the president-elect. After a flag raising ceremony, city residents went down to Second and Vine Streets, where the train transporting Lincoln and his party arrived around 1:30pm. He was taken to the Jones House hotel in a carriage, and after Governor Curtin introduced him to the crowd of 30,000, from a balcony Lincoln gave “a short speech brimming with patriotism”. Lincoln then gave another patriotic speech to the Pennsylvania State Legislature. After returning to the Jones House, the populace believed he would leave in the morning for Baltimore. However, that evening, Simon Cameron consulted with Curtin and Allan Pinkerton, a Chicago police detective traveling with Lincoln, about a plot to assassinate the president-elect. After hearing of the danger along the planned route, Cameron hastily sent for his personal carriage driver, Jacob Compton, to drive one of the two carriages carrying Lincoln and his fellow travelers. In the night, the carriages were secretly transported to a special train bound first for Philadelphia, then Baltimore, and ultimately to Washington, where he arrived safely. However, while Compton may have had a brush with fame as he guided the future president to safety, he was well-known in Harrisburg as a musician and giving participant in both the Old Eighth Ward and in his church community, Wesley Union A.M.E. Zion church.
Harrisburg, Messiah College, Messiah University, Pennsylvania, worship, AME
Religion | United States History | Urban Studies and Planning
Hermeling, Drew and Digital Harrisburg, "Church Communities of the Old Eighth Ward - With biography of Jacob Compton" (2019). Look Up, Look Out. 4.