Category Archives: Historic Preservation

#ThisPlaceMatters: Abolition Hall

May is Preservation Month, a time for folks to celebrate places that matter to them. Few places matter more to me than Underground Railroad sites. Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania, is under threat by a proposal to build 67 townhouses on the George Corson homestead.

Abolition Hall - #ThisPlaceMatters

Charles L. Blockson, Curator Emeritus of the Charles L. Blockson Afro American Collection at Temple University, is the author of several books on the Underground Railroad. Blockson wrote:

Abolition Hall was an important terminal on the Freedom Network known as the Underground Railroad, not only has local significance but also national significance. As chairperson of the National Park Service Advisory Committee, I referenced this site to highlight the importance of the Underground Railroad. … The site played a significant role in the National Park Service Underground Railroad Study, adopted by Congress to designate the Network to Freedom as a national historic treasure. Abolition Hall is a national, historical site that should be preserved.

To that end, I reached out to Michael Coard, a founding member of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition. ATAC won the battle to ensure the National Park Service told the full history of the first President’s House.

Tweet - April 27, 2018 - Abolition Hall - Last Moments of John Brown

An attorney/activist, Coard is host of WURD’s “Radio Courtroom.” On April 29, I was a guest on his show. I alerted his listeners to the alarm sounded by Sydelle Zove in a recent op-ed:

To allow the proposed townhouse project to proceed through the standard land development process absent appropriate due diligence by the developer with regard to the stabilization, restoration, reuse, and marketing of the historic structures is to turn our backs on the Americans who lived here, those who sought shelter here, and others who spoke boldly in opposition to the institution of slavery.

Zove is a convener of Friends of Abolition Hall. She said in an email:

Our struggle to protect the legacy of this well-documented Underground Railroad station pales in comparison to the travails of the men, women, and children who arrived in Plymouth Meeting seeking sanctuary. And when these fugitives from bondage were welcomed by George and Martha Corson, it was their hosts who were placed at risk – of fines and imprisonment. Today, the Friends of Abolition Hall is determined to fight the proposed 67-unit townhouse plan that will consume the fields where runaways hid among the tall cornstalks. That same plan will send the historic structures – Abolition Hall, Hovenden House, and Barn – to the auction block where they will be sold to the highest bidder. The developer asserts that by not demolishing these buildings, he is preserving them. That is an insult to all who lived here, hid here, and to those of us who argue that Abolition Hall deserves better.

Their struggle is now ATAC’s struggle. Kanye West’s ignorant comment that slavery was a “choice” underscores the importance of preserving in public memory the places that tell the story of America’s original sin.

The developer, K. Hovnanian Homes, will be back before the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors on May 24, 2018.

Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors Meeting - May 24, 2018

Freedom isn’t free. Friends of Abolition Hall needs help to continue their fight to save the historic buildings from the auction block. If the walls of Hovenden House, Abolition Hall, and the Barn could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance and triumph. Please make a tax-deductible donation in the name of the ancestors.

For more information, visit Friends of Abolition Hall.

Jane’s Walk: North Broad Street Then & Now

Since 2007, community historians across North America and around the world have taken to the streets to lead a Jane’s Walk, “a movement of free, citizen-led walking conversations inspired by Jane Jacobs.”

On Saturday, May 5, 2018, I will lead a Jane’s Walk, “North Broad Street Then & Now.” We will uncover North Broad Street’s forgotten past as an enclave of nouveau riche industrialists. North Broad was also an entertainment destination for African Americans. That was then.

Now after years of neglect and disinvestment, North Broad is experiencing a development boom. We will explore North Central Philadelphia’s jazz history and issues ripped from the headlines such as gentrification, civil rights and cultural heritage preservation.

The walking tour will begin at the Metropolitan Opera House that was commissioned by Oscar Hammerstein.

Metropolitan Opera House Collage

Points of interest along the way include:

  • Majestic Hotel/Beaux Arts Café
  • Flamingo Apartments
  • Loyal Order of Moose Lodge/Legendary Blue Horizon
  • Heritage House/Freedom Theater
  • Alfred E. Burk Mansion
  • Progress Plaza
  • Chesterfield Hotel/Ebony Lounge
  • Barber’s Hall
  • Linton’s Restaurant
  • Grand Opera House/Nixon Grand Theatre

The walk will end at Temple University Mitten Hall, where John Coltrane last performed in Philadelphia. That night, Coltrane played “My Favorite Things” which he first recorded in 1961. The show tune is from “The Sound of Music,” a Broadway musical with music by Richard Rodgers and lyrics by Oscar Hammerstein II, the grandson of the industrialist who commissioned the Metropolitan Opera House.

Mitten Hall Collage

We will meet at the Metropolitan Opera House, located at 858 N. Broad Street (at Poplar Street). The free event will be held, rain or shine, on Saturday, May 5, from 10:00am to 11:30am. No reservations are required.

Blue Note Salon

On December 8, 1956, the Miles Davis Quintet, featuring Miles Davis (trumpet), John Coltrane (tenor saxophone), Red Garland (piano), Paul Chambers (bass) and Philly Joe Jones (drums) performed at the Blue Note. The set was featured on the Mutual Network live remote radio broadcast, Bandstand, U.S.A.

That same night, the police raided “the town’s swankiest jazz emporium.” The Blue Note was a “black and tan” club, an integrated nightspot where blacks and whites socialized on an equal basis. As such, it was the target of police harassment.

Philadelphia Tribune - Dec. 11, 1956

From the beginning, jazz was a tool for social change. Jazz musicians’ unbowed comportment created a cultural identity that was a steppingstone to the Civil Rights Movement. In remarks to the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said jazz is “triumphant music”:

Jazz speaks for life. The Blues tell the story of life’s difficulties, and if you think for a moment, you will realize that they take the hardest realities of life and put them into music, only to come out with some new hope or sense of triumph.

This is triumphant music.

Modern jazz has continued in this tradition, singing the songs of a more complicated urban existence. When life itself offers no order and meaning, the musician creates an order and meaning from the sounds of the earth which flow through his instrument.

It is no wonder that so much of the search for identity among American Negroes was championed by Jazz musicians. Long before the modern essayists and scholars wrote of racial identity as a problem for a multiracial world, musicians were returning to their roots to affirm that which was stirring within their souls.

Much of the power of our Freedom Movement in the United States has come from this music. It has strengthened us with its sweet rhythms when courage began to fail. It has calmed us with its rich harmonies when spirits were down.

On April 21, 2018, All That Philly Jazz and Black Quantum Futurism will present the “Blue Note Salon” which pays homage to jazz musicians’ legacy of resistance. The community discussion will feature creative change makers who work on social justice issues. Their work is at the intersection of art, community engagement and social change.

Blue Note Salon

The event is free and open to the public. To RSVP, go here.

The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X

February 21 was the 53rd anniversary of the assassination of Malcolm X, El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz.

Malcolm X

Two years ago, I nominated a former residence of Malcolm X for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. In the statement of significance, I wrote:

Malcolm X, aka El-Hajj Malik El-Shabazz, is a world-renowned human rights activist and American icon whose charismatic leadership laid the foundation for the growth of orthodox Islam among African Americans in the City of Philadelphia, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania and the nation. His life story is an American story. It is a “Horatio Alger” tale of a misspent youth, personal redemption and triumph in the struggle for racial equality.

During his “misspent youth,” Malcolm was known as “Detroit Red.” He was a fixture on the jazz scene in Harlem. His former residence, 2503 W. Oxford Street, was located a short walk from Philadelphia’s storied “Golden Strip.”

I also noted:

In the years since his assassination, Malcolm has become an American icon. He is the subject of countless books and academic studies, and documentaries, including PBS’ “Malcolm X: Make It Plain.” Spike Lee’s movie adaptation of The Autobiography of Malcolm X was released in 1992. “Malcolm X” featured an Oscar-nominated performance by Denzel Washington.

While the nomination was not successful, all was not lost. We raised awareness of Malcolm’s presence in Philadelphia. “The Lost Tapes: Malcolm X” will introduce a new generation to the human rights activist. The documentary premieres on the Smithsonian Channel on February 26 at 8pm EST.

The Lost Tapes

The documentary traces Malcolm’s life through rare archival footage from his speeches and media interviews. In comments following a recent screening Malcolm’s daughter, Ilyasah Al-Shabazz, said:

We finally have the opportunity to hear directly from our father’s mouth. … I was overwhelmed with emotion when I first saw it and I thought that it was a great piece of work.

For more information, visit the Smithsonian Channel.

We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Story Never Told

Like Philadelphia, Pittsburgh once had a robust jazz scene with legendary venues, including the Granada Theater and the Crawford Grill.

Crawford Vintage

Crawford Grill - Pittsburgh - Historical Marker - 2001

Pittsburgh produced jazz greats such as Art Blakey, Billy Strayhorn, Mary Lou Williams, George Benson, Ahmad Jamal, Stanley Turrentine, Billy Eckstine and Kenny Clarke.

We Knew What We Had2

Thanks to a new documentary, “We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Story Never Told,” the world will know what Pittsburgh had.

The one-hour documentary includes live performance clips of the Jazz Masters, interviews and archival photographs. As important, the filmmakers contextualize Pittsburgh’s jazz culture by exploring social conditions and historical events.

“We Knew What We Had: The Greatest Story Never Told” will air in February. For more information and air dates, visit their website.

Leonard Bernstein@100

This year marks the centennial birthday of several jazz luminaries, including Ella Fitzgerald, Dizzy Gillespie, Lena Horne and Thelonious Monk. Philharmonic Laureate Conductor Leonard Bernstein was born on August 25, 1918 but the celebrations are already underway. The worldwide festivities will continue until August 25, 2019.

Bernstein had a longstanding appreciation of jazz, blues and spirituals. His 1939 Harvard University bachelor’s thesis was entitled, “The Absorption of Race Elements into American Music.”

From LeonardBernstein.com:

From his earliest years, jazz was an integral part of Bernstein’s life, and it made a crucial impact on his own music.

As a teenager in the 1930s, he put together a jazz band, was famous for his jazz piano playing at parties, and directed a swing band at summer camp. Some of the jazz-inflected music he composed in the mid-1930s at Harvard, and later at Curtis [Institute], provided source material for future works. Perhaps most significantly, his undergraduate thesis was no less than an assertion that jazz is the universal basis of American composition. In New York soon after college, he got to know jazz intimately, by day transcribing for publication the improvisations of legendary players like Coleman Hawkins, and playing piano in jazz clubs at night.

About 15 years ago, I first saw this video of Bernstein conducting Louis Armstrong performing “St. Louis Blues” with the composer, W.C. Handy, in the audience. The images are forever etched in my mind.

On December 2, I will attend the Louis Bernstein Marathon at the CUNY Graduate Center, an eight-hour concert featuring performances of Bernstein’s most popular work. For me, the event is a mash-up of two of my passions: good music and historic preservation. The CUNY Graduate Center is located in the repurposed B. Altman & Co.

B. Altman

For Louis Bernstein at 100 calendar of events, go here.

Going to Chicago for PastForward

I’m going to Chicago for PastForward 2017. I am a two-time recipient of a diversity scholarship to attend the National Trust for Historic Preservation’s annual conference. But as I wrote for the Preservation Leadership Forum blog, I am an accidental preservationist:

I love old buildings. I love even more the stories that old buildings hold—they are places where history happened. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, “if walls could talk” they would tell stories of faith, determination and triumph. For me, historic preservation is about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story.

One of my first stops will be State and Washington streets to check out the 10-story mural of Muddy Waters.

Muddy Waters Mural

I’ll also check out the former home of the blues icon. Sadly, the 125-year-old building is under threat of demolition.

Muddy Waters Home

Discussions on reUrbanism, preservation and health, and technology will be live streamed. You can sign up as a virtual attendee for free. You can also follow the conversation on Twitter using the hashtag #PastForward17.

I’m going to Chicago, y’all.

While in the Windy City, I will use the CTA to get around. NEA Jazz Master and Philly naive Jimmy Heath composed “CTA.” Miles Davis said it was named after Heath’s then-girlfriend Connie Theresa Ann.