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a book about Harrisburg...

by George F. Nagle


Table of Contents

Study Areas:



Free Persons of Color

Underground Railroad

The Violent Decade

US Colored Troops

Civil War


Chapter Seven

Tanner's Alley

Even if the fugitive slave family had still been in the same location, and even with the militia company in attendance, the slave catchers probably would still have had a tough time finding them; such was the labyrinthine nature of this neighborhood. Their protectors had chosen the hiding places well. No other location in Harrisburg offered the same combination of interconnected buildings, blind alleys, and closed mouth residents as the few square blocks that made up the African American neighborhood that centered on Tanner's Alley.

Modern researchers refer to the entire neighborhood by that street's name, because it was the social and cultural heart of the neighborhood, but local observers at the time referred to the area with more demeaning names. The editors of the Telegraph dubbed it "Bassa Cove," after an earlier name for that portion of Liberia used by the New York and Pennsylvania Colonization Societies to resettle free black emigrants from the United States. The original Bassa Cove on the west coast of Africa had a reputation for being unhealthy and wild, with immature and unsophisticated social structures in place to serve the resettled American blacks. As a metaphorical namesake, Bassa Cove was not meant to be flattering.

To Harrisburg's white citizenry, the residents of Tanner's Alley and its environs were at best childlike and the subjects of amusement, as in this item from the local newspaper the Morning Herald:

Colored Ball - A grand colored Ball is to take place at the Armory of the National Guard on Tuesday next. Ebony in dimity will circulate amazingly on the occasion.119

The same newspaper struck a more somber tone as it reported on the deteriorating condition of the original Wesley Union Church structure in the Judy's Town neighborhood, which had been abandoned by its congregation in 1839 in favor of a new building in Tanner's Alley. Although the empty building had been put to several different uses after its congregants moved out, the newspaper hinted at neglect on the part of the town's African American residents for its poor condition:

A Nuisance - The old building standing at the corner of Mulberry and Third streets, whose rooms in days gone by were vocal with the religious enthusiasm of the "colored folks," is now fast going into decay, and "darkly nodding to its fall." 120

In fact, the entire portion of land directly east of the Capitol presented a stark contrast to that magnificent structure. Many of the buildings were low and mean, and often described by news editors and other observers as being little more than shacks. The structures crowded upon each other, thickly lining the narrow and often muddy streets. It was a style of urban growth that developed from the needs of its occupants, and not from any sort of planning.

Harrisburg historian J. Howard Wert wrote extensively about this notorious area, an area that included not only the Tanner's Alley neighborhood, but also the surrounding multiracial district, in the years before it was bulldozed to enlarge and improve the state capitol grounds. He described a densely settled neighborhood in which "the streets are generally narrow, whilst some of them are crooked and others go wandering off at all sorts of angles with no uniformity of plotting. In fact some of them do not appear to have been laid out by an official authority, but rather to have leaped into existence on the good old plan of some one starting to build along a cow path or lane."

Wert's last observation on the lack of plotting may be very close to the truth, as large numbers of African Americans were observed to be living in this unofficial neighborhood as early as 1825, when it was still outside of the borough limits. The impetus for settling here as early as the 1820s, when a growing African American neighborhood already existed at Third and Mulberry Streets, may have been due to the convenience of the location. It was close to the established African American boarding houses in and around Strawberry Alley, and it was close to the construction site for the new state Capitol and its associated buildings, which offered not only jobs, but materials for the construction of houses. As a result, rows and clusters of simple houses began to spring up, literally along the cow paths and lanes of the area, heedless of any plot of future avenues that might have existed on town planning maps.

Wert's comments on the actual housing that dominated these narrow alleys are also helpful in understanding why this neighborhood became a successful Underground Railroad destination:

In the early days of Harrisburg building, some queer things were done. With large expanses of open territory all around, it seemed to have become the fixed idea of owners and contractors that every inch of ground must be occupied. Not a foot of ground must be wasted at the front, at the side, in the rear, anywhere, in the foolishness of having a lawn, a flower bed or a yard of any kind.
The notions as to the sacred preciousness of every inch of ground and the impiety of using any of it for any purpose but building on, ran riot, half a century ago, in every part of Harrisburg; but in no locality was it carried out so completely as in the old portion of the Eighth Ward.
As the streets, alleys and courts of this section generally narrow and close together, the houses erected on the front of a lot ran back till they met those that were built to face the rearward alley.

Thus the houses of Walnut street are cheek by jowl with those of Tanner, Short and Christie's court; those of South alley with those of South street on the one side and State street on the other; and so on through all the sandwich-like juxtaposition of houses.

Years later, yet long before J. Howard Wert wrote about it, the rude housing that dominated this section of town was the subject of local newspaper commentary. The editor of the Telegraph, George Bergner, began to take regular pot shots at Tanner's Alley, or as he dubbed it, Bassa Cove:

Private Alleys - [In "Bassa Cove" exist]…a number of small private or blind alleys which appear to have been laid out expressly for the purpose of erecting small tenements, in order to bring to the owners of the land the largest possible income. These houses are, of course, from the cheapness of the rent, intended to be occupied by a class of citizens, who, either from negligence or inability, are generally less attentive to cleanliness than is consistent with the general comfort of the neighborhood in which they are situated, and probably with the general health of our entire community.

Bergner also observed the existence of "dance houses" in this neighborhood, establishments that he associated with crime and moral degradation:

Dance Houses

Some of the police force of our city must by this time be fully cognizant of the fact that there exists in "Bassa Cove" at least two of the meanest and most disreputable dance houses, frequented not only by the lowest dregs of our colored population, but by equally debased white men, yet so far as our knowledge serves us, there has never been a decisive effort to wipe them out of existence. At least nine out of every ten police cases emanating from this section of the city had their origin in these iniquitous dens, and while the patrons of the establishments are generally punished to the full extent of the law, no attention whatever is paid to those who own them. We hope the police will still themselves in this matter.

To bolster his campaign against the offensive businesses, Bergner was careful to report, often with sarcastic asides, on the location of local disturbances of the peace:

A Disgraceful Riot occurred on Saturday night last, between a party of canal boatmen and colored men at a house of ill fame in that classic region of our city known as "Bassa Cove." No arrests were made.122

The crime associated with this neighborhood was real—it could be a very dangerous place for unwary strangers--and much of the blame can be placed on the industry that helped drive its growth: the canal. As J. Howard Wert wrote in 1912, "The men who followed the tow path sixty years ago were not generally the men who sought out a prayer meeting when they tied up for the night." The canal docks were located directly east of Tanner's Alley and its connecting avenues. Businesses of every type that would appeal to these rough and tumble itinerant workers dotted these streets, and the boatmen eagerly patronized them.

Also in attendance at the bars, gambling dens and prostitution houses, although usually only in the spring, were the river raft men, an equally rowdy bunch. Despite their quarrelsome demeanor, which frequently flared into public "riots" when they clashed with local men, as reported above, the men who made their living along the waterways of central Pennsylvania provided a tremendous economic boost to Tanner's Alley and its environs. They also made it an inhospitable place for strangers who were there not to spend their coin, but to catch or kidnap local residents.



Harrisburg's anti-slavery activists had experienced a decade of growth and solidification of operations in the 1840s. Following up on the idealistic 1830s, during which alliances between Harrisburg's abolitionist-minded white and anti-slavery African American communities were forged, the 1840s saw a steady stream of nationally recognized anti-slavery speakers stopping by on their circuit, culminating with the 1847 visit from publisher William Lloyd Garrison and speaker Frederick Douglass. Anti-slavery publications and newspapers became freely available, and bazaars were held to raise funds to be sent to larger anti-slavery organizations.

More importantly, the network to aid and forward fugitive slaves who arrived in town expanded from isolated efforts by either white or black activists, to a more coordinated and racially bilateral system. The forces of anti-abolitionism were far from vanquished, however, and the violence that engulfed the residents of Short Street in late September 1849 reflected the beginnings of a pushback by those opposed to such efforts. Retaliation by pro-southern and pro-slavery forces grew steadily stronger during the next decade, as the slavery question festered at every level of government. In many spots inside Pennsylvania and along its southern border, tempers flared as patience ended, often with shockingly violent results. The social and political shock waves from the events of the 1850s presented Harrisburg's African American residents with their strongest challenge yet.


End of Volume One

Previous | Next (Volume Two)



119. Harrisburg Morning Herald, 9 October 1856.

120. Harrisburg Morning Herald, 11 October 1856.

121. See note 18, which describes the general public's view of the designated "public grounds," which were set aside for state use by John Harris, as truly public property. Gravel and sand for building were freely excavated and taken by Harrisburg residents from this public plot of land northwest of Fourth and Walnut streets. Another reason early African American settlement began here and not on the land that directly joined the Strawberry Alley neighborhood was due to the nature of that adjoining land, which was exceptionally marshy. Instead, African Americans looking for nearby building sites around 1820 found them around the odoriferous tan yards that then existed east of the public ground. These tan yards, which were convinced to move further away after the state legislators moved in, provided the name for the street that took shape in their place. Egle, Notes and Queries, 1st and 2nd ser., vol. 2, 72:392-393; 3rd ser., vol. 1, 45:367, Annual Volume 1897, 11:61. J. Howard Wert described the physical boundaries of this area as "Fourth Street to the P.R.R. between the lines of Walnut and North streets." He also noted that this neighborhood did not become part of the Borough of Harrisburg until 1838. Barton and Dorman, Harrisburg's Old Eighth Ward, 22-24.

122. Harrisburg Daily Telegraph, 30 July, 5, 8 October 1857.


Caution: Copyrighted material. Published September 2010.

© 2010 George F. Nagle



This is the first in a series of books from the Afrolumens Project. Drawing on a large number of sources, and making good use of the treasure trove of information on the pages of the Afrolumens Project, this is the first truly comprehensive history of Harrisburg's African American community.

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