Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.

Driving While Black

From the moment the first enslaved Africans were brought to British colonial America in 1619, Black mobility has been policed. Frederick Douglass had to carry a pass as he traveled across the country to recruit Black troops for the Civil War.

While white Americans were told to get their kicks on Route 66, African Americans had to put the pedal to the metal lest the sun go down on them in one of the sundown towns along the storied highway.

A two-hour documentary, “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,” aired on PBS on October 13, 2020.

Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York, spent 20 years researching Black mobility. The documentary is based on her book, “Driving While Black: African-American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” Sorin, director Ric Burns, producer and editor Emir Lewis, and Spencer Crew, acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently participated in a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

A travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book helped Black travelers navigate racialized public spaces. For information about the Green Book in Philadelphia, go here.

William Still at 200: Walking in the Abolitionist’s Footsteps

Abolitionist William Still was born on October 7, 1821. I read Still’s “The Underground Rail Road” when I was in high school. I have been fascinated with this fearless Black man ever since.

To commemorate the bicentennial of his birth in 2021, I will lead a walking tour, “William Still at 200: Walking in the Abolitionist’s Footsteps.” The walk will begin near the location of the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society where Still was reunited with his brother, Peter, and Henry “Box” Brown was delivered to freedom.

We will stop at places associated with the Father of the Underground Railroad including Independence Hall, Mother Bethel AME Church, Still’s boarding house and Lombard Street Central Presbyterian Church.

The walking tour will include sites associated with “friends of the fugitive” including Frederick Douglass, Robert Purvis, Dr. J. J. Gould Bias, Sarah Buchanan, William Whipper, Jacob C. White Jr., Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, Frances E.W. Harper and Henrietta Duterte.

The last stop will be the South Philly rowhouse where Still and his wife, Letitia, lived from 1850 to 1855. This is where Still began to record the stories of hundreds of self-emancipated “weary travelers flying from the land of bondage.” The weary travelers who crossed these marble steps included Harriet Tubman and her brothers Ben, Henry and Robert who escaped on December 24, 1854.

To be added to the mailing list for the walking tour schedule or to arrange a group tour, contact me, Faye Anderson, at williamstillat200@gmail.com.

Gospel Music Heritage Month 2020

Since 2008, September has been designated Gospel Music Heritage Month. Rooted in the African American oral tradition, gospel music helped us get over.

On Wednesday, September 30, 2020, 2:00pm – 3:30pm ET, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University will celebrate the Reverend Joseph Williams, Jr., an original member of the gospel quartet Sons of the Birds who will be inducted into the Black Music Hall of Fame later this year.

Rev. Williams was also a member of the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds from 1983 to 1987.

Rev. Williams and Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church will lead a virtual master class in the history and legacy of gospel music through word and song. To join the conversation, use this link: https://temple.zoom.us/j/91499000220.

The program is free and open but registration is encouraged.

Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

A Quest for Parity in Historic Preservation and Public Art

What happens when the institutions making the decisions about removing the Christopher Columbus statue from public view are themselves the legacy of systemic racism?

In my WHYY/PlanPhilly essay, I wrote you get the spectacle of the Philadelphia Historical Commission denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. Commission members know the wealthy developer plans to demolish the building to construct cookie-cutter apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly.”

Seven weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his desire to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. The move came in response to violent protests against anyone who dared to challenge the controversial Italian explorer’s place in colonial history. In a tweet, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Part of reckoning with the legacy of systemic racism means reconsidering what figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces.”

Mayor Jim Kenney - Systemic Racism Tweet - June 24, 2020

But what happens when the institutions doing the reckoning – Philadelphia Historical Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission – are themselves the legacy of systemic racism and racial exclusion?

[…]

At the Historical Commission, the white gaze is the default standard for historical or cultural significance. Implicit bias led to the spectacle of commissioners overruling the unanimous vote of the Committee on Historic Designation and denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. While acknowledging the property meets the statutory criteria for designation, the Commission ruled the façade is not “recognizable” because of an 1894 renovation that concealed the original building.

#HenryMinton House - #PhilaHistorical

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Alexander Hamilton, Slavery, and First Bank of the United States

A live-recording of the musical “Hamilton” was filmed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. The original Broadway production is now available on Disney+ streaming platform.

The film has brought attention to the national bank that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed in 1790. A year later, Congress granted a 20-year charter for the First Bank of the United States. Thomas Willing, who arguably was still a slaveholder, was the national bank’s first president.

Hamilton throws shade on Thomas Jefferson who opposes the bank charter:

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.

The bank charter was not renewed. Instead, the assets of the First Bank of the United States were liquidated. According to VISIT PHILADELPHIA®, Hamilton “never set foot inside of the structure.” But a slaver, Stephen Girard, did. Girard purchased the property in 1812.

Stephen Girard

The structure was now known as Stephen Girard’s Banking House.

Stephen Girard's Bank - J. A. Paxton Directory -1813

The National Historic Landmark has been closed for decades. It was opened to the public for one day in 2018.

First Bank of the United States - Facebook - June 30, 2018The pop-up exhibit curated by Drexel University’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships made no mention of Girard. A National Park Service ranger told me Independence Historical Trust wants to focus on Hamilton and financial literacy. However, facts are stubborn things. Slaver Girard’s name is engraved in the glass dome that was added when the interior was redesigned in 1902.

First Bank of the United States - Owned and Occupied by Stephen Girard - June 30, 2018

According to his will, Girard owned at least 30 slaves (h/t Penn & Slavery Project). In the course of digging the foundation for a new subway station in 1906, Girard’s slave pen was uncovered.

Girard slave pens.

Girard’s slave dungeon matches the description of a slave pen in “Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England” published in 1854.

John Brown Slave Narrative - New Orleans Slave Pen

Stephen Girard Slave Pen Discovery - Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1909 - Overlay

In 2018, Friends of Independence National Historical Park (renamed Independence Historical Trust) was awarded an $8 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to restore the First Bank.

Gov. Tom Wolf Tweet - September 28, 2018

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said:

Today, I am proud to be here to announce that the commonwealth has made a commitment to support the reopening of this historic landmark. The state’s investment will help reopen the central bank that once served as the foundation to modern United States fiscal policy, into a museum.

There was no mention of slavery or Stephen Girard. As the nation grapples with the long overdue reckoning on racial injustice, taxpayers’ money must not be used to whitewash history. Girard’s nearly 100-year association with the historic landmark is the untold story behind the neoclassical facade. If Independence Historical Trust ignores the building’s history — and Alexander Hamilton’s involvement with slavery — we will tell the rest of the story.

To be added to the mailing list for updates, send your name and email address to Faye Anderson at andersonatlarge@gmail.com.

Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

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Traveling While Black

The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.

LBJ handing pen to MLK - July 2, 1964

Before 1964, African Americans used travel guides, including The Negro Motorist Green Book, to navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. As this Emmy-nominated virtual reality film shows, African Americans are still traveling while black.

Must–See TV: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Toni Morrison was a writer, book editor, college professor, activist and visionary. Morrison’s much-loved novel, Beloved, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1993, she became the first black woman of any nationality to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

toni-morrison-nobel prize-in-literature

Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honor, from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony in 2012. President Obama said:

Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From Song of Solomon to Beloved, Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language “arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.” The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.

toni-morrison-presidential medal of freedom

American Masters presents the U.S. broadcast premiere of the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at 8:00pm ET on PBS.