Category Archives: Historic Preservation

Abolition Hall Update

Located 30 minutes from Philadelphia, Abolition Hall was an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found shelter in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields. The historic landmark provided safe passage for enslaved African Americans fleeing the auction block, the brutality of slave life and the torture inflicted on those who dared to resist.

Slave Auction - The Villages at Whitemarsh

Brutality of Slave Life - The Villages at Whitemarsh

Instruments of Torture - The Villages at Whitemarsh

In October 2018, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors approved K. Hovnanian Homes’ application to build 67 townhouses on the Corson Homestead. The cookie-cutter development would be a stone’s throw from the national landmark. Friends of Abolition Hall and two nearby property owners appealed the decision.

Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, said:

We are pursuing legal action through the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, asking that the decision by the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors be overturned. That decision, issued on October 25, 2018, clears the way for K. Hovnanian Homes to construct 67 townhouses on the fields adjoining Abolition Hall and the Hovenden House. This 10.45-acre property — the Corson Homestead — was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad. George Corson and Martha Maulsby Corson risked imprisonment and fines in opening their home to men, women, and children fleeing north to Canada. Legal counsel for the grassroots group is preparing a brief for the court, which is due on March 14.

For the developer, money seemingly grows on trees. By contrast, Friends of Abolition Hall must beat the bushes to continue the fight to save Abolition Hall from degradation. If you believe this place matters, please make a tax-deductible donation at http://preservationpa.org/page.asp?id=65.

Unmarking African American History in Philadelphia

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial America. The first Africans arrived in Philadelphia circa 1639. Although the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia, black history was largely excluded from public spaces. A chance conversation at a Kwanzaa celebration led me to sound the alarm about missing and damaged African American historical markers in Philadelphia.

There is power in remembering the past. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, recently wrote:

You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museum and what they celebrate. … Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.

In Philadelphia, we have heeded the call to ensure the ancestors are not forgotten. During Black History Month, we are checking on the status of African American historical markers.

Faye Anderson - William Still Historical Marker - Feb. 2, 2019

In an essay published in PlanPhilly, I wrote about the unmarking of African American history:

Philadelphia’s streets are lined with history. The blue and gold signs issued by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission mark everything from the oldest medical library in the U.S. at Pennsylvania Hospital to 300-year-old Elfreth’s Alley.

But before 1990, there were only two markers associated with African American history installed in Philadelphia: First Protest Against Slavery (1983) and St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church (1984). To fill the gaping hole in the American story, in 1990 Charles L. Blockson, founder and then-curator of Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, launched the historical marker project. The project was funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. In the introduction to Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers published in 1992, Bernard C. Watson, Ph.D., then-president and CEO of the foundation, wrote: “The Philadelphia African-American Pennsylvania State Marker Project is a modest first step toward correcting one of the most egregious problems in Philadelphia public history. Philadelphia, the birthplace of our independence, home of the Liberty Bell, the first capital city of these United States, is so rich in historical detail that the absence of signs and signposts to recognize and commemorate the nearly 300-year presence of Africans and then African-Americans, has been especially troublesome. They, too, were and are part of our history.”

Then as now, gentrification was unmarking black history. Dr. Blockson wrote this about the origin of the project: “When the project began, it became apparent that Philadelphia, like other American cities, was losing places of historical significance through gentrification and neglect. It is our hope that through the installation of the African-American historical markers, we can preserve the remaining sites and revive memories of past events and citizens who lived before us and made positive contributions to our nation.”

Jessie Redmon Fauset was among the first wave of markers dedicated in the 1990s. Her marker was installed in front of the North Philadelphia house in which she was living at the time of her death.

jessie redmon fauset historical marker2

The February 18, 2017 issue of the New Yorker included an article by literary commentator Morgan Jerkins, “The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset.” The piece revived interest in Fauset’s literary work. However, the accomplished writer was never forgotten in Philadelphia. On its 150th anniversary in 1998, the Alumnae Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls elected Fauset to their Distinguished Daughters Court of Honor. She was the first African American graduate of the prestigious public school.

Although former Sixer and NBA legend Charles Barkley played on a different court, he, too, honored Fauset by naming her a “Philadelphia Black History Month All Star” in February 2018. A few months later, Jacqueline Wiggins found an ugly patch on the sidewalk where Fauset’s historical marker used to be.

the-covered-patch-where-a-historic-marker-commemorating-jessie-redmon-fauset-once-stood.752.1337.s

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Black History Month 2019

In February 1926, Carter G. Woodson, founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, launched “Negro History Week.” Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, wrote:

No one has played a greater role in helping all Americans know the black past than Carter G. Woodson, the individual who created Negro History Week in Washington, D.C., in February 1926. Woodson was the second black American to receive a PhD in history from Harvard—following W.E.B. Du Bois by a few years. To Woodson, the black experience was too important simply to be left to a small group of academics. Woodson believed that his role was to use black history and culture as a weapon in the struggle for racial uplift. By 1916, Woodson had moved to DC and established the “Association for the Study of Negro Life and Culture,” an organization whose goal was to make black history accessible to a wider audience. Woodson was a strange and driven man whose only passion was history, and he expected everyone to share his passion.

This impatience led Woodson to create Negro History Week in 1926, to ensure that school children be exposed to black history. Woodson chose the second week of February in order to celebrate the birthday of Lincoln and Frederick Douglass. It is important to realize that Negro History Week was not born in a vacuum. The 1920s saw the rise in interest in African American culture that was represented by the Harlem Renaissance where writers like Langston Hughes, Georgia Douglass Johnson, Claude McKay—wrote about the joys and sorrows of blackness, and musicians like Louie Armstrong, Duke Ellington, and Jimmy Lunceford captured the new rhythms of the cities created in part by the thousands of southern blacks who migrated to urban centers like Chicago. And artists like Aaron Douglass, Richard Barthe, and Lois Jones created images that celebrated blackness and provided more positive images of the African American experience.

Woodson hoped to build upon this creativity and further stimulate interest through Negro History Week. Woodson had two goals. One was to use history to prove to white America that blacks had played important roles in the creation of America and thereby deserve to be treated equally as citizens. In essence, Woodson—by celebrating heroic black figures—be they inventors, entertainers, or soldiers—hoped to prove our worth, and by proving our worth—he believed that equality would soon follow. His other goal was to increase the visibility of black life and history, at a time when few newspapers, books, and universities took notice of the black community, except to dwell upon the negative. Ultimately Woodson believed Negro History Week—which became Black History Month in 1976—would be a vehicle for racial transformation forever.

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No More Auction Block for Black Americans

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln went into effect.

Emancipation Proclamation - January 1, 1863

The executive order changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in 10 designated states and areas then in rebellion against the United States:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America. There will be a year-long commemoration of 400 years of African American history.

#400Years African Ameican History

As the nation gears up to mark this milestone, K. Hovnanian Homes is gearing up to degrade Abolition Hall, a former Underground Railroad station where fugitive slaves found shelter on their journey to freedom. The purpose-built structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ignoring the reasoned opposition of Friends of Abolition Hall and allies, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors voted to allow Hovnanian to build 67 townhouses within a stone’s throw of the historic landmark.

While the case winds its way through the courts, we’re taking the case for saving Abolition Hall to the court of public opinion. To that end, we launched VillagesatWhitemarsh.info which redirects to Abolition Hall Deserves Better. For the next 400 days, we will curate news and information to raise awareness among prospective Villages at Whitemarsh buyers that they would be buying into a cookie-cutter development that was built on hallowed ground. So caveat emptor.

Abolition Hall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

If you have stories that you would like to share with this crowdsourced project, please contact Abolition Hall Deserves Better.

Remembering John Brown

December 2 marks 159 years since freedom fighter John Brown’s last moments on Earth.

William H. Johnson - John Brown Legend

The fiery abolitionist is near and dear to my heart. Many years ago I visited John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

John Brown's Fort

I’ve lost count of the number of times I touched base with my hero at the National Portrait Gallery.

John Brown - National Portrait Gallery

I also regularly visit John Brown at the Metropolitan Museum and share with him what’s going on.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned a development project, the Villages at Whitemarsh, would encroach on the studio where Thomas Hovenden painted “The Last Moments of John Brown.”

Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found shelter in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields, was converted into a studio after the Civil War. The developer, K. Hovnanian Homes, wants to build 67 generic townhouses a stone’s throw from the historic landmark.

Hovnanian won the first round but the fight is far from over. Friends of Abolition Hall appealed the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors’ approval of the developer’s conditional use application.

John Brown’s “body lies a-mouldering in the grave. But his soul goes marching on.” Indeed, I believe to my soul that Abolition Hall deserves better.

To add your voice to those who oppose the desecration of this historic landmark and hallowed ground, please contact us.

Veterans Day 2018

In 1919, President Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11 as Armistice Day:

To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country’s service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nations.

November 11 commemorates the armistice agreement Allied powers signed with Germany bringing hostilities to an end on the “eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month” of 1918.

In June 1954, Congress passed legislation changing the name from Armistice Day to Veterans Day, a day to honor veterans of all wars. On October 8, 1954, President Dwight D. Eisenhower issued the first Veterans Day Proclamation.

Just six years earlier, President Harry S. Truman signed Executive Order No. 9981 establishing the President’s Committee on Equality of Treatment and Opportunity in the Armed Services. The EO signaled the government’s commitment to integrate the military.

United Service Organizations (USO) policy expressly banned racial discrimination. However, there were separate facilities for African American servicemen in the Jim Crow South and segregated North. In Philadelphia, USO sites for African Americans included Parker Hall and South Broad Street USO. Billie Holiday entertained the soldiers at both locations.

Billie Holiday - South Broad Street USO

Parker Hall was on the top floor of the Parker Building.

Parker Hall - Germantown CDC

The Parker Building is now home to the ACES Museum whose mission is to preserve the history of World War II veterans and restore Parker Hall as a functioning USO for black veterans and their families. The ACES Museum is headquarters of the Philadelphia Chapter of the National Association of Black Veterans.

For more information, visit www.acesmuseum.online.

Philadelphia Jazz Summit 2018

The inaugural Philadelphia Jazz Summit will be held November 2-3, 2018. Spearheaded by jazz bassist Gerald Veasley, the event will bring together musicians, jazz enthusiasts, advocates, funders, and the arts and culture community.

Veasley, president of Jazz Philadelphia, said in a statement:

The time has come for Philadelphia to be recognized as the world-class jazz destination it is. Philadelphia has been fertile soil for jazz for over 100 years. The city has served as a launching pad for the careers of legends such as John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Billie Holiday, Lee Morgan, Melody Gardot, Christian McBride, Grover Washington, Jr., Sun Ra and many more.

Veasley added:

Jazz Philadelphia is here to provide more opportunities for the next generation of musicians to play here, stay here, and share their talent with the world. I’ve had a wonderful career as a Philadelphia-based musician, and I want to ensure that others can do the same.

The schedule includes speakers, workshops, and panel discussions that cover a wide range of topics, including applying for grants and residencies, educating artists and audiences, and playing in unconventional spaces. I’m on the panel, “The Philadelphia Story.” I’ll talk about ongoing project to document Philly’s jazz spots from A to Z, from the Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue.

All That Philly Jazz - Aqua Lounge to Zanzibar Blue2

Nnenna Freelon, a jazz singer, composer, producer, arranger and six-time Grammy® nominee, is the keynote speaker. Freelon was selected in recognition of her cultural activism and commitment to social justice.

Nnenna Freelon

The Philadelphia Jazz Summit is free but you must register.