Project collects Scranton stories to chronicle history, diversity

·6 min read

Aug. 21—Who is Scranton? An ongoing, multi-faceted project wants to find that out.

That's why the University of Scranton's Julie Schumacher Cohen, along with colleagues from the school and several community groups, launched "Scranton's Story, Our Nation's Story." The 2.5-year project aims to answer the question "Who is Scranton?" with events, lectures, social media campaigns, an oral history project and more. All of these initiatives seek to show Scranton's diverse, rich history and what it has to offer through the eyes of those who live or have lived there.

"Scranton is more complex than how it's often portrayed," said Cohen, U of S assistant vice president of community engagement and government affairs. "Through this, we hope to honor and share the experiences and perspectives of many different Scrantonians. We want to really show off all we have to offer here and who Scranton is."

Other local groups — including the Lackawanna County Department of Arts and Culture, Black Scranton Project, Lackawanna County Immigrant Inclusion Committee, Lackawanna Historical Society, Center for the Living City and more — are working together on this project, which will culminate in 2023.

It all started during the "depths of COVID-19," Cohen said, when she heard of a National Endowment for the Humanities grant as well as its "A More Perfect Union" initiative, which will commemorate the 250th anniversary of the United States in 2026. Scranton is considered an iconic, all-American city, and Cohen and her colleagues believed that Scranton — given its industrial, religious and ethnically diverse heritage — relates directly to that of the country as a whole. That's where the name "Scranton's Story, Our Nation's Story" came from.

Organizers learned in August 2021 that they received the grant and hit the ground running. Numerous community groups and partners began to join the project, and Cohen hopes this will give a more expansive voice to it.

"It's a broad city project and a very, very collaborative effort with so many different partners across the city," she said. "We've received such an enthusiastic response from everyone who wanted to be involved. It's amazing to be part of something that we're all coming together and working toward. It's exciting."

The project kicked off last fall with a theme focused on Scranton in the popular imagination and how that relates to the authentic Scranton of today. The early stages included a lecture by West Scranton native and author Jay Parini plus local panelists; a Lackawanna Avenue walking tour centered around urbanist and city native Jane Jacobs to consider, "What Scranton is, has been and can be"; and a roundtable discussion on "Scranton & the Nation: Who Are We and Who Do We Aspire to Be?"

"Scranton's Story, Our Nation's Story" has since and will explore several themes, including the area's Native American history; immigrant experiences past and present; industrial expansion, decline, and the economic challenges and opportunities that it stemmed from; a diverse ethnic and religious population that shows the changing faces of neighborhoods; and a longstanding Black community, made up of some that came via the Underground Railroad, and now works to reclaim its history and educate the public about it.

The project includes lectures throughout the year through August 2023. Recently, Samantha Seeley, Ph.D., an assistant professor of history at the University of Richmond, discussed her book, "Race, Removal and the Right to Remain: Migration and the Making of the Early United States," which highlights early efforts to construct a white republic and the forced removal of Native and Black Americans. Cohen explained it is important to discuss all of the country's history, including the uncomfortable topics, so people can learn from them.

"We hope all of these lectures and events can play into the larger picture of our nation's story," she said. "It wasn't always and still isn't comfortable, but it's necessary in understanding and hoping to not make the same mistakes."

"Scranton's Story, Our Nation's Story" also serves as an opportunity to reflect on local stories and consider how Scranton can contribute to "a more perfect union." The programs center on citizens' roles in democracy and will involve collecting a range of Scranton stories to share at the project's 2023 culmination and provide ongoing educational resources.

Initiative members put out a call for residents and natives interested in telling their Scranton tales, which contributors can do online at scranton.edu/scrantonstory.

Kimberly Crafton, coordinator of the oral histories initiative, said a project like this "helps us see ourselves through a larger lens" and allows the present voices of Scranton to be heard.

"We often celebrate our past here in Scranton, and this provides a rare snapshot of our present moment, which includes our communal hope for the future of Scranton and our nation," Crafton added.

Organizers also have attended cultural and community events throughout the city to spread awareness about the project and urge others to share their perspectives.

One of those organizers, Alejandra Marroquin, who works in community outreach at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine, got involved with the project through the Lackawanna County Immigrant Inclusion Committee. Marroquin has promoted the message at different events, including those that celebrate and explore the city's diversity, such as World Refugee Day, the Black Scranton Project's Juneteenth Jubilee, and St. John Neumann and St. Paul of the Cross' Unity Festival, which sought to bring together the diverse cultures that make up the parish.

While Scranton is known for Irish and Italian immigrants who came to the United States in search of a better life, Marroquin explained, their stories resemble those of the city's more recent immigrants from Latin American countries, Nepal, Bhutan and more. Whether it is because of politics or just simply not realizing it, many people can't see the similarities, Marroquin said, and this project seeks to bridge that gap.

"It's taking personal stories into our city's stories, into our larger community and regional stories, all the way to our nation's stories," she said. "If we listen to each other, we will realize we have more in common than not."

Cohen didn't know of Scranton's rich heritage until she moved there more than a dozen years ago. As a transplant, she could discover all of the pieces that make up the city and hopes others do the same through this project. One simple facet of the project is the photo booth, where residents attending events can hold up signs that say, "I am Scranton."

"It's a very casual kind of thing, people just holding up these signs, but it really does illustrate all of the different people that make up this city," Cohen said. "It's like anything else — sometimes those small details tell the story."

Contact the writer: gmazur@timesshamrock.com; 570-348-9127; @gmazurTT on Twitter