March 22, 2022

Crowdsourcing a More Equitable History in Pennsylvania's Chesapeake Bay Watershed

ASC Group, Inc., in partnership with WSP USA and Markosky Engineering, Inc., is working with the National Trust for Historic Preservation and the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office on the “Chesapeake Mapping Initiative: Crowdsourcing African American Cultural Sites in Southcentral Pennsylvania Project.” This project, which is an effort to engage the Black community in identifying and documenting important historic places, is being supported by the National Trust's African American Cultural Heritage Action Fund, the Chesapeake Bay Gateways Network of the National Park Service, the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, and the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources’ Community Conservation Partnerships Program.

An exterior view of a building undergoing stabilization efforts due to its historic importance to the African American Community in Pennsylvania.

photo by: Ben Harvey/ASC Group

View of the Mt. Tabor African American Episcopal Zion Church in Mount Holly Springs, Cumberland County. This church, which was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 2021, is undergoing stabilization and rehabilitation efforts because of its importance in local history.

Project Goals

The primary goal of the project is to find new ways of engaging underrepresented communities in Pennsylvania. As a pilot program, this effort will use crowdsourcing to involve the broader Black community in identifying places and sites which are locally important and have not been adequately recognized in past historic preservation efforts. The focus of this portion of the project is the Chesapeake Bay Watershed, particularly the counties of Adams, Cumberland, Dauphin, Franklin, Fulton, Lancaster, Lebanon, Perry, and York.

The secondary goals of the project are:

  • To expand the number of historic resources that reflect underrepresented communities in the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office’s PA-SHARE database.
  • To test a framework for public coordination by other state agencies with various communities of interest.
  • To lay the groundwork for ongoing relationships and connections between underrepresented communities, agencies, and organizations with a vested interest in preserving diverse places.

Digital and Traditional Methods for Broad-Based Engagement

In order to support engagement activities, the project will use available crowdsourcing tools with a map-based focus. A website has been developed to serve as a public face and launching point for the project’s efforts. The site provides background information about the project and its goals. The website will be paired with the tools available through WikiMapping, to allow members of the public to share their stories.

The tools will allow for the identification and placement of a pin over a significant building or site. This will enable documentation of information and events relevant to the importance of what happened there. The WikiMapping will be interactive, allowing users to collaborate and comment on each other’s posts, building the story of a place collectively.

In addition to using these digital tools, the project team will hold traditional public meetings, albeit online, to discuss the project and garner feedback. The meetings will provide a forum for the discussion and documentation of both properties and sites from individuals who are more comfortable with a meeting setting. These meetings will initially be held in each county, with regional follow-up meetings to continue the conversations and deepen the relationships established in the county-level meetings. The project team hopes these public meetings will engage the participants and their communities in a lasting and meaningful way, and begin a dialogue that continues well after this project concludes.

In order to achieve broad-based support and incorporate a diverse array of voices, the distribution list for the project was developed to maximize points of contact in both the research community and the Black community more generally. The initial contact list includes historical researchers at county historical societies as well as researchers identified specifically with research topics like the Underground Railroad.

A screenshot of a GIS mapping project

Screenshot of the Crowdsourcing African American Cultural Sites in Southcentral Pennsylvania Project

Additionally, we are reaching out to Black cultural heritage organizations, community groups, and churches. Often the outreach for historic preservation projects focuses on only historically minded organizations and may miss important perspectives about what should be considered historic or significant, which can come from the broader community. By reaching a wide audience, the project team aims to foster new stories that have not previously been recognized as well as document historical places and sites that were overlooked in the past.

Anticipated Results form Crowdsourcing

In casting a wide net, the project aims to capture the breadth of the history of the African American experience in Southcentral Pennsylvania. We anticipate the information gathered using the project’s tools will encompass diverse stories across multiple eras. It is expected that places and sites associated with the Underground Railroad will be documented, especially due to the location of Pennsylvania along routes used by formerly enslaved peoples to reach freedom in the northern states and Canada. The team also seeks to identify additional sites associated with free African American communities.

Some of these sites, such as Pandenarium in Mercer County, have previously been documented and explored. Due to the importance of churches within the Black community, both culturally and as sites of political involvement, we hope to gather additional information about these buildings, from their presence on the landscape to their impact within the community.

We also intend to gather information about important twentieth-century places, such as economic and cultural centers, as well as locations associated with the struggle for Civil Rights and against Jim Crow segregation. Together, these sites will tell a more complete and complex history of Pennsylvania’s Black residents as identified by the people who have lived and shaped that history.

The project’s crowdsourcing tools will be available for 3 months, after which we will begin the process of compiling and documenting the historical buildings and sites the community has identified. This effort will use survey tools available through the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office, so that the information gathered will be available for future activities like grant funding and project planning protections.

Although the number of resources to be surveyed by the project team will be limited, the resources which have been identified as part of the project will be provided to the Pennsylvania State Historic Preservation Office and other partners so the efforts to document these resources can be continued after the project is complete.

Overall, we aim for this project to be just the first step in continued efforts to engage underrepresented communities in Pennsylvania. For too long, these stories have been neglected, marginalized, erased, or told by outsiders. We hope that by involving the whole community in the identification and documentation of historically and culturally important places of black heritage, we can tell a more complete story and begin a conversation which will continue to deepen over time.

Funding for the Chesapeake Mapping Initiative: Crowdsourcing African American Cultural Sites in Southcentral Pennsylvania Project is provided in part by the National Park Service Chesapeake Bay Gateways Program and by the Environmental Stewardship Fund of the Pennsylvania Department of Conservation and Natural Resources, Bureau of Recreation and Conservation.

This material was produced with assistance from the Historic Preservation Fund, administered by the National Park Service, Department of the Interior. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the Department of Interior.

Benjamin Harvey is the lead Architectural Historian in ASC Group’s Harrisburg Pennsylvania Office. A lifelong native of Pennsylvania, he leads all aspects of the office’s architectural history projects in Pennsylvania and its neighboring states, including historic preservation and regulatory compliance projects.

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By: Ben Harvey

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