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In the early days of the Old Eighth Ward, education was segregated and the responsibility of church communities. Thomas Dorsey founded a school for “colored children, both free and bound,” in 1817 in the Wesley Union AME Zion church building. Eventually, a three story building, located between the Jennings Foundry and the Wesley Union church, known as “Franklin Hall” became the primary educational home of the Ward’s pupils. However, Franklin Hall was poorly suited for educating children. J. Howard Wert, writing in the Patriot, described the conditions there, stating that they

“were of the poorest; the rooms were destitute of apparatus or even ordinary school conveniences, whilst to sanitary and hygienic precautions not a thought was given.”

Furthermore, the white girls of the Eighth Ward were given their own school–known as the Garfield School–as they were thought to be too young to travel to white schools outside of the ward. These conditions did not go without notice, fortunately, and the Old Eighth Ward served as an epicenter of educational reform in Harrisburg.

Dr. Rev. William Howard Day worked to integrate Harrisburg’s school system. In 1879, the first African-American students were admitted to the boy’s high school. Two of them, John P. Scott and William Howard Marshall, graduated in 1883. Scott was an especially successful student, and delivered the salutatorian speech at the graduation ceremony. Titled “Stand for Yourself,” Scott, argued that

“the power of self-support is possessed by each individual and upon its use or abuse must each depend for success or failure.”

Moreover, new schools were built in the Eighth Ward, far better suited for educating students. Initially named the Lincoln School, this school was a marked improvement over the cramped Jennings School. Fittingly, one of the first teachers to join the faculty was Harrisburg’s first African-American salutatorian, John Scott. Even more appropriately, when the name “Lincoln” was transferred to a school in Allison Hill, the original Lincoln School was renamed the Day School after William Howard Day. On the other side of the ward, the Wickersham school was dedicated in 1897. Here, Harrisburg’s other first integrated African-American graduate, William Marshall, would serve as principal.

William Howard Day was born in 1825 in New York but was raised by an affluent white family in Northampton, Massachusetts. Before coming to Harrisburg, he obtained a degree at Oberlin College and traveled across the country campaigning for black civil rights. He became the secretary of the National Negro Convention in Cleveland in 1848, partnering with Frederick Douglass to pen the “Address to the Colored People of America.” In 1859, he traveled to the United Kingdom, preaching and working with the YMCA. Upon his return, Day worked for the Freedmen’s Bureau after the Civil War. Day was elected school director in Harrisburg in 1878 and again in 1887. As the first black board member and president, he worked with principal Spencer P. Irvin to integrate three African American students into the Boy’s High School in 1879. While serving as president, he even established Livingstone College with the help of J. C. Price, William H. Goler, and Solomon Porter Hood, a historically black Christian college in Salisbury, North Carolina. Because of his influence, African-American access to secondary education in Pennsylvania significantly increased.

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Harrisburg, Messiah College, Messiah University, Pennsylvania, Common school, education


African American Studies | Education | United States History | Urban Studies and Planning

Educational Reform in the Old Eighth Ward - With biography of William Howard Day