Category Archives: Historic Preservation

International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition

The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first observed in Haiti in 1998. UNESCO designated August 23 because it marks the beginning of the 1791 slave rebellion in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Louverture

This year’s observance coincides with the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first enslaved Africans in Point Comfort, Virginia. This 3D model of a slave ship shows the conditions under which the ancestors were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay said:

The Slave Route Project, launched by UNESCO in 1994, has made it possible to identify the ethical, cultural and socio-political issues of this painful history. By developing a multidisciplinary approach, which links historical, memorial, creative, educational and heritage dimensions, this project has contributed to enriching our knowledge of the slave trade and spreading a culture of peace. On this International Day, UNESCO invites everyone, including public authorities, civil society, historians, researchers and ordinary citizens, to mobilize in order to raise awareness about this history that we share and to oppose all forms of modern slavery.

Jazz bassist and composer Marcus Miller, a two-time Grammy-winner, is UNESCO Artist for Peace. I used to live in Dakar, Senegal. I spent many afternoons on Gorée Island at the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) staring out the “Door of No Return.”

Door of No Return - Goree Island

Miller’s composition “Gorée” captures my feelings of anger, remembrance and determination to never forget.

For the month of October, an 80-foot-long, 18th century “ghost ship” will be on display on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Slave Ghost Ship2

For info about the holographic installation, visit the Delaware River Waterfront Arts Program.

Green Book Walking Tour

What’s old is new again. The Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor H. Green, a postal worker in Harlem, is all the rage. Access to the Green Book in the New York Public Library Digital Collections and the forgettable “Green Book” movie sparked interest in the crowdsourced travel guide that was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

The Green Book empowered African Americans to “vacation without aggravation.” The guide helped travelers, including musicians, athletes and businesspeople, navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking!” is a precursor to the current mantra to “know your rights.”

Your Rights, Briefly Speaking (1963-1964)

A network of postal workers scouted out advertisers for the Bible of black travel. Green Book listings included hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, barber shops and beauty parlors. Green envisioned a time when his publication would no longer be necessary:

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.

That day did not come until July 2, 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.

Over the course of 30 years, there were dozens of Philadelphia listings. Some businesses advertised every year; others for one or multiple years. Green Book listings were sites of sanctuary. They were also sites of resistance.

The Green Book Walking Tour stops at sites in Center City and South Philly.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

The walking tour starts at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel (now The Bellevue Philadelphia) and ends at the repurposed Attucks Hotel (distance: 0.7 miles).

#GreenBookPHL Begin-End - Feature

Stops include:

  • National Historic Landmark where John Coltrane first heard Charlie Parker;
  • Supper club that was a hangout for the producers and musicians who created “The Sound of Philadelphia”;
  • Hotel that welcomed jazz luminaries to its stage from the 1940s to the 1980s, and where Sidney Bechet, Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums;
  • Hotels where Billie Holiday stayed and was arrested;
  • Legendary club where jazz and blues greats performed on the inside and tap dancers improvised on the outside;
  • Jazz club that paid homage to postal workers and U.S. Postal Service; and
  • Dive bar that was the setting for the Broadway play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.”

The Green Book Walking Tour is led by All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson, a storyteller who is passionate about uncovering hidden and forgotten stories.

Airbnb - Faye Anderson - Philadelphia International Records

To book a tour, go to Airbnb Experiences.

To schedule a group tour or Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia presentation, contact Faye at greenbookphl@gmail.com.

Help Restore Nina Simone’s Childhood Home

From its birth, jazz has been at the intersection of race and social change. Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” left a musical legacy that speaks to the current times. Indeed, the debate over segregationists, school busing and states’ rights harkens back to the days of “Old Jim Crow.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to restore Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina.

Your donation in any amount will help preserve Nina Simone’s story in public memory. For more information, please go here.

Reconstructing the Narrative

Last week I attended a preview of a new exhibit, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality .

Civil War & Reconstruction - The Battle for Freedom and Equality - NCC

Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, said in a statement:

The National Constitution Center is thrilled to open the first permanent gallery in America that will tell the story of how the freedom and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence was thwarted in the original Constitution, resurrected by Lincoln at Gettysburg, and, after the bloodiest war in American history, finally enshrined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Harvard University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research Henry Louis Gates Jr. said it is the “most amazing” Reconstruction exhibit he has ever seen. Gates hosted the PBS documentary, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War. In conversation with Rosen, Gates observed:

Reconstruction produced a violent, racist backlash. We are still trying to come to terms with the ending of slavery and derailing of Reconstruction.

The exhibit includes certified copies of the three Reconstruction Amendments. I was filled with amazement as I viewed the resolution to amend the Constitution that Secretary of State William H. Seward submitted to the states on February 1, 1865. The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

William Seward - 13th Amendment - Feb. 1, 1865 - FMA

The wall of abolitionists ignited my imagination of what it might have looked like when they gathered at Abolition Hall, an anti-slavery meeting place. The Underground Railroad site played host to Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Wall of Abolitionists2

John Brown never visited Abolition Hall but his spirit looms large. After the Civil War, the purpose-built structure was converted into an artist’s studio where Thomas Hovenden painted The Last Moments of John Brown. The iconic painting was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1897.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden - Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But it is at risk of degradation by K. Hovnanian’s cookie-cutter development, the Villages at Whitemarsh. A ruling on the appeal of the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors’ zoning decision is still pending. For information on how you can help protect this historic landmark, please visit Friends of Abolition Hall.

Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. What matters to me is the loss of historic places that hold the ancestors’ stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

A recent report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia has the fourth highest rate of gentrification. The 34-page report is encapsulated in a statement by Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan who lays bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand:

Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.

The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, black history apparently is not American history.

As I commented before the Philadelphia Historical Commission when the property was nominated for listing on the local register, this places matters:

Henry Minton belonged to an elite guild of caterers and was a leader in the free black community. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

There is not much more to add other than Minton provided freedom fighter John Brown “with bed and board” shortly before his raid upon Harper’s Ferry. It should also be noted that Minton is listed on the iconic Civil War poster, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Clearly, the nomination satisfies Criteria A and J for Designation.

The provenance of the front façade is a distraction. The property is not being nominated because of its architectural significance. So the National Register roadmap for evaluating integrity is irrelevant. Viewed through the African American lens, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s about recognizing that our stories matter. African American history matters.

Commission members acknowledged the property does indeed meet the criteria for designation. Still, they reversed the unanimous decision of the Committee on Historic Designation and voted to toss the building on the trash heap of history.

Henry Minton Residence - Committee on Designation Vote

#PhilaHistorical Commission Vote to Decline Designation - April 12, 2019

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America. While African American history is more than slavery, our story begins with the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” in Virginia. So whether one focuses on 1639 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Philadelphia or 1939 when Billie Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

So where’s our story? I will talk about disappearing blackness on WHYY Radio Times on Thursday, May 9, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 am. The station can be heard in Philadelphia and New Jersey. You can join the conversation on Twitter (@whyyradiotimes) or call 888-477-9499.

Ironically, WHYY is in the footprint of Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob three days after it opened. Philadelphia’s mayor, firefighters and police stood by and did nothing.

Pennsylvania Hall Marker

Pennsylvania Hall - WHYY

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.

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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