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.
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.
Black History Month is past the halfway mark. With the daily stream of stories about blackface in high places in Virginia, and Gucci and Katy Perry blackface merchandise, some are thankful February is the shortest month.
Governor Ralph Northam’s assertion that the first Africans to arrive in Virginia were “indentured servants” shows his fundamental ignorance about American history.
It has been 400 years since “twenty and odd” Africans arrived at Jamestown. The Virginia governor, aka Coonman, did not know how African Americans’ ancestors got here so he’s reading up on American history. Fine, but here’s the “CliffsNotes” version courtesy of B.B. King:
When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
I am an advocate for the arts. I believe in the power of art to transform lives and ignite social change. Last summer, the Arthur Ross Gallery invited citizens to select an artwork from the University of Pennsylvania Art Collection to be included in a crowdsourced installation, Citizen Salon.
I was among 600+ people who responded. The citizen curators included art historians, Penn faculty, artists, scientists and ordinary citizens. I selected a portrait of Marian Anderson, the first African American soloist to perform with the New York Metropolitan Opera. The top 50 picks are now on view, including Robert Savon Pious’ portrait of the world-renowned contralto.
I was asked to provide commentary for the label and audio tour which you can listen to here.
I also regularly visit John Brown at the Metropolitan Museum and share with him what’s going on.
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.
Enslaved African Americans such as Denmark Vesey, Charles Deslondes and Gabriel Prosser led rebellions.
On August 21, 1831, Nat Turner led a rebellion in Southampton County, Virginia. Over a two-day period, Turner and his army freed every enslaved African American they encountered and killed 55 whites.
Attorney and Philadelphia Tribune columnist Michael Coard, founder of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), writes:
Nat and his guerrilla army — a group that had grown to approximately 70, including about 40 enslaved and 30 free (with nearly 300 suspected of providing direct or indirect assistance) — ultimately killed 55 whites but spared many others. Despite Nat’s death, he was ultimately victorious in freeing you and me.
In the spirit of Nat Turner’s resistance, ATAC will hold its annual birth of slavery commiseration event on Monday, August 20, 12:00pm, at 6th and Market streets. Fittingly as we begin the countdown to 400 years of African American history, the event will be held near the The President’s House.
As B.B. King observed, African Americans first got the blues when “they brought [us] over on a ship.”
Enslaved Africans used the message in the music to plan their escape.
Music helped runaways navigate the pathway to freedom.
On their quest for freedom, some of our enslaved ancestors found sanctuary in Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields. A developer’s plan to develop the fields struck a discordant note with Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, and Avenging The Ancestors Coalition. ATAC Founder Michael Coard recently wrote:
Abolition Hall was built in 1856 by George Corson, a Quaker abolitionist. It, its adjacent family home, and purportedly its adjacent fields were where Black men, women, and children took shelter in courageous attempts to flee slavery. Zove says the developer proposes to “subdivide and reconfigure” this historic homestead to construct 67 townhouses on the open fields directly next to the hall. Once divided, notes Zove, the developer plans to sell the hall, the stone barn, and the Thomas Hovenden House – all listed on the aforementioned National Register. She continues by pointing out that it’s not just the hall that’s in jeopardy but also the “fields where cornstalks hid fugitives”—fields she describes as an “integral part of the site.”
The developer’s proposal would box in the national historic landmark. So Friends of Abolition Hall and ATAC are asking concerned citizens to raise their voices and tell Whitemarsh Township: Abolition Hall deserves better. The Board of Supervisors will meet on Thursday, June 14, 2018, at 7pm, 616 Germantown Avenue in Lafayette Hill. If you need a ride, holler.
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.
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.
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.
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.