Tag Archives: Slavery

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 escaped on December 24, 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.

Alexander Hamilton, Slavery, and First Bank of the United States

A live-recording of the musical “Hamilton” was filmed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. The original Broadway production is now available on Disney+ streaming platform.

The film has brought attention to the national bank that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed in 1790. A year later, Congress granted a 20-year charter for the First Bank of the United States. Thomas Willing, who arguably was still a slaveholder, was the national bank’s first president.

Hamilton throws shade on Thomas Jefferson who opposes the bank charter:

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.

The bank charter was not renewed. Instead, the assets of the First Bank of the United States were liquidated. According to VISIT PHILADELPHIA®, Hamilton “never set foot inside of the structure.” But a slaver, Stephen Girard, did. Girard purchased the property in 1812.

Stephen Girard

The structure was now known as Stephen Girard’s Banking House.

Stephen Girard's Bank - J. A. Paxton Directory -1813

The National Historic Landmark has been closed for decades. It was opened to the public for one day in 2018.

First Bank of the United States - Facebook - June 30, 2018The pop-up exhibit curated by Drexel University’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships made no mention of Girard. A National Park Service ranger told me Independence Historical Trust wants to focus on Hamilton and financial literacy. However, facts are stubborn things. Slaver Girard’s name is engraved in the glass dome that was added when the interior was redesigned in 1902.

First Bank of the United States - Owned and Occupied by Stephen Girard - June 30, 2018

According to his will, Girard owned at least 30 slaves (h/t Penn & Slavery Project). In the course of digging the foundation for a new subway station in 1906, Girard’s slave pen was uncovered.

Girard slave pens.

Girard’s slave dungeon matches the description of a slave pen in “Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England” published in 1854.

John Brown Slave Narrative - New Orleans Slave Pen

Stephen Girard Slave Pen Discovery - Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1909 - Overlay

In 2018, Friends of Independence National Historical Park (renamed Independence Historical Trust) was awarded an $8 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to restore the First Bank.

Gov. Tom Wolf Tweet - September 28, 2018

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said:

Today, I am proud to be here to announce that the commonwealth has made a commitment to support the reopening of this historic landmark. The state’s investment will help reopen the central bank that once served as the foundation to modern United States fiscal policy, into a museum.

There was no mention of slavery or Stephen Girard. As the nation grapples with the long overdue reckoning on racial injustice, taxpayers’ money must not be used to whitewash history. Girard’s nearly 100-year association with the historic landmark is the untold story behind the neoclassical facade. If Independence Historical Trust ignores the building’s history — and Alexander Hamilton’s involvement with slavery — we will tell the rest of the story.

To be added to the mailing list for updates, send your name and email address to Faye Anderson at andersonatlarge@gmail.com.

The Roots of Jazz and Blues

Is American jazz black music? Is the Pope Catholic?

A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”

In 1979, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture of the history of jazz for the slow learners.

Mary Lou Williams HistoryTree

The roots of the blues were planted in 1619 when Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia on a slave ship. Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron observed:

America provided the atmosphere for the blues and the blues was born
The blues was born on the American wilderness
The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked
Born on the slave man’s auction block

If your ancestors didn’t pick cotton from “cain’t see in the morning till cain’t see at night,” Benny Turner wants you to know who sang the blues first.

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.

#1619Project: 400 Years of African American History

Four hundred years ago, a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.

#400Years - Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia - NYPL Digital Collections

On August 13, 2019, The New York Times Magazine will launch “The 1619 Project.”

The 1619 Project
The entire issue of the magazine will be devoted to an examination of “the many ways the legacy of slavery continues to shape and define life in the United States.” The launch event is sold out. You can watch the free live stream here on Tuesday, August 13, at 7 p.m. E.T.

Countdown to 400 Years of African American History

The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first observed in 1998 in Haiti. 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. Slavery was abolished in Haiti in 1783.

Enslaved Africans resisted their captors from the moment they were brought over on a ship.

Enslaved African Americans such as Denmark Vesey, Charles Deslondes and Gabriel Prosser led rebellions.

Gabriel Prosser Historical Marker

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.

Nat Turner's Rebellion

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.

#400YearsOfAfricanAmericanHistory - August 20, 1619

Message in the Music

Black Music Month was first observed on June 7, 1979 at the White House.

#BlackMusicMonth - June 7, 1979

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.

#AbolitionHall - ATAC - June 14, 2018

#ThisPlaceMatters: Robert Purvis House

Philadelphia is the birthplace of the American democracy and a City of Firsts. While there are thousands of places that matter, only two percent of historic buildings are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Without historic designation, buildings can be demolished with impunity.

Sadly, historic designation provides little protection from demolition by neglect. Without court intervention, that fate may await the Robert Purvis House. Built circa 1859, this is the only extant home of the cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People. Because of its association with a leading abolitionist, the house is a significant resource within the Spring Garden Historic District.

Robert Purvis Collage

From ExplorePAHistory.com:

In October 1838, the voters of Pennsylvania approved a new state constitution that limited the power of the governor, prohibited the legislature from granting special favors to corporations, and ended life tenure for judges. The new constitution also stripped black Pennsylvanians of their right to vote, a right guaranteed under law since 1790. African Americans had since then lost the ability to vote in some Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia. But the constitutional disenfranchisement of black voters was yet another ominous sign of the rising power of the slaveocracy in the United States and of the growing fears of black political and economic power in the state of Pennsylvania.

The appeal quoted above was penned by Robert Purvis, then fast emerging as one of Philadelphia’s most prominent abolitionists. The year before, Purvis was the principal organizer of the Vigilant Association of the Philadelphia, founded to promote the anti-slavery movement and “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress.” In the decades that followed he and his wife Harriet would use their home to harbor slaves escaping to Canada along the Underground Railroad and Purvis would act as a tireless leader in the struggle not just for the rights of African Americans, but for the equal rights of all Americans, regardless of their race, nationality, or sex.

Noris and Miguel Santiago purchased the Robert Purvis House on December 19, 1977. The couple did not maintain the historic landmark; instead, they racked up years of building code violations.

Robert Purvis House Collage

The slumlords have fought efforts to save the Robert Purvis House. Barbara Wolf has served on the board of the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation since its inception. Wolf said in an email:

The owners of this historic property have repeatedly and persistently failed to take the basic necessary steps, even when court ordered, to maintain and secure this building. Through willful neglect, they have caused the rear of the building to collapse, with resultant city’s demolition because of immediate safety concerns. The son of the owners in a recent court hearing even boldly stated that he wanted the remaining front block of the building to be demolished. This building survived in solid shape for over 100 years before the owners’ purchase in 1977. In a little over 40 years, the rear ell wall has collapsed and the remaining front is seriously deteriorated in an “unsafe” condition.

Wolf’s petition for the appointment of a conservator to restore the Robert Purvis House is supported by the City of Philadelphia. But right now, the property is tangled in a legal morass in federal bankruptcy court. As the result of neglect by financially and morally bankrupt scoundrels, a building that holds stories of organized resistance to slavery may be erased from public memory.