Tag Archives: Public Memory

Black History Matters

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Still’s last place of residence was 244 S. 12th Street.

Still’s neighbors included abolitionist Henry Minton who lived at 204 S. 12th Street. While Still’s residence has been demolished, Minton’s former residence and place of business is still standing, for now.

In the coming weeks, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development will demolish one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad. The road to demolition was paved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission which for an “inexplicable” reason ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation. The sole vote for designating the Henry Minton House was cast by the representative of City Council President Darrell Clarke, the only Black man with a seat at the table.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board wrote:

Critics like Faye M. Anderson, the director of a public history project to document Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, maintain that the commission and its staff, which are predominantly white, do not advocate enough on behalf of preserving overlooked sites, such as Doctors Row, that are rich with Black history.

Consider the inexplicable 2019 decision to reject a register nomination for a 12th Street building once occupied by the abolitionist Henry Minton, a member of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Black elite. Anderson and other critics contend the commission gave too much weight to arcane technical specifications or architectural alterations — and paid too little attention to the role of the building in community life.

Demolition of the Henry Minton House is not the end of the story. Midwood has a conditional public art bonus that allows the developer to build more cookie-cutter apartments for “the demographic moving to Philly.” The zoning density bonus is site-specific and must be approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission. If the developer erases the history of the specific site, 204 S. 12th Street, the community will fight the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy. Without a CO, Midwood’s shiny new high-rise will sit empty.

The struggle continues.

UPDATE: The Design Advocacy Group’s letter to the editor in response to the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board op-ed has been published (full disclosure: I serve on DAG’s Steering Committee). The letter reads in part:

While we’re at it, we also can’t wait for a long-term solution to protect the house and restaurant of abolitionist and star caterer Henry Minton at 204 South 12th Street. The developers of the generic 36-story residential tower planned for that site have agreed to pay for a replacement for the mural honoring LBGTQ activist Gloria Casarez that they have already painted over. That’s welcome news. But they should also preserve the distinctive 19th-century façade of the Minton house. That will make their project more attractive—and it’s the right thing. It’s a win-win.

Read more

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Midwood Investment & Development began to demolish the Henry Minton House. The developer unwittingly exposed the lie that the alterations to the façade were irreversible. With little effort, the façade could have been restored to its period of significance. But properties associated with Black history must pass a Jim Crow historic integrity test that the Betsy Ross House and other properties designated “historic” could not pass.

This is what systemic racism in historic preservation looks like.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.

Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was also home to the largest and wealthiest African American population in the country. Philadelphia’s Black elite included Henry Minton (1811-1883), a caterer and abolitionist whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Last year the Philadelphia Historical Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register because its façade has been altered. Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish one of the few extant buildings in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Midwood CEO John Usdan signaled his biased view of history in 2017. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer Usdan said:

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 [emphasis added].

That is what systemic racism in historic preservation sounds like. This is what it looks like. The Historical Commission applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House and “historic” properties in Society Hill could not pass.

For a deeper dive, check out my essay “Henry Minton House, Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation.”

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 arrived on December 29, 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.

Blackfishing Marian Anderson

Easter Sunday marked the 81st anniversary of Marian Anderson’s performance at the Lincoln Memorial before an audience of 75,000. She sang outdoors because the Daughters of the American Revolution, an organization of white descendants of Revolutionary War veterans, banned African Americans from performing at Constitution Hall which DAR owns.

Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial

Five days earlier, the National Endowment for the Humanities announced $22.2 million in new grants including $650,000 for a documentary about Marian Anderson. Michael Kantor, executive producer of American Masters, is the project director.

I was thrilled the civil rights icon was finally getting the American Masters treatment. The thrill was gone when I found out the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society is not included in the grant.

NEH - No Funding

Jillian Patricia Pirtle, CEO and President of the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society, was interviewed by Robert Rapley, a producer and writer for The American Experience. It is ironic the producer of The Abolitionists thinks it’s cool to pick a black woman’s brain for free.

NEH - Robert Rapley

This is Kantor’s second helping of taxpayers’ money for the same project. In 2018, NEH awarded him $75,000 for the “development of a script and trailer for a sixty-minute documentary film on the popular singer Marian Anderson.” This video is the grant product.

Marian Anderson was born and nurtured in Philadelphia. She first performed at Union Baptist Church. When her family couldn’t afford private lessons, members of the congregation pitched in and raised money for a voice teacher. I spoke up in support of preservationist Oscar Beisert’s effort to save the church. In 2015, the historic church was demolished to make way for luxury condos for gentrifiers.

Marian Anderson Church - 7.11.16

I spoke up when residents of Graduate Hospital, the most gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia, floated the idea of renaming their community “Marian Anderson Village.” African Americans have been displaced but gentrifiers want the cultural cachet of the internationally renowned contralto without the people who look like her.

Graduate Hospital - Marian Anderson Village

Cultural appropriation or blackfishing has no bounds. Karen Attiah, global opinions editor for The Washington Post, observed, “It’s America’s obsession with blackness, and black culture – without black people.”

Blackfishing - Karen Attiah

Michael Kantor is awarded $725,000 for a documentary. Meanwhile, the cultural institution that preserved Marian Anderson’s South Philly rowhouse and keeps her story in public memory is starving for resources.

NEH - No Funding2

Legendary conductor Arturo Toscanini once said, “Hers is a voice heard once in a hundred years.” Sadly, blackfishing Marian Anderson is an all too common occurrence.

 

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. The businesses were clustered in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping Green Book Philadelphia - Green Book Icon4

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle - Vintage Sign

Hotel Carlyle - William Shouldis

Hotel Carlyle - June 7, 2019

To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.