Tag Archives: Underground Railroad

Keep Gloria Casarez Mural on 12th Street

Thirty years ago, now-Columbia Law School professor Kimberlé Crenshaw coined the term intersectionality, “a lens through which you can see where power comes and collides, where it interlocks and intersects. It’s not simply that there’s a race problem here, a gender problem here, and a class or LBGTQ problem there. Many times that framework erases what happens to people who are subject to all of these things.” Midwood Investment & Development’s demolition of 204 South 12th Street will erase LBGTQ history and Black history from public memory. The fight to save the Gloria Casarez mural intersects with the fight to save one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad.

Casarez was a civil rights leader and LGBTQ activist, and the first director of Philadelphia Mayor’s Office of LGBT Affairs. Her mural adorns one of the interconnected buildings owned by Midwood. The building to the right of the mural is the former residence and place of business of Henry Minton, a leading Black abolitionist and elite caterer whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass and Frederick Douglass, the Father of the Underground Railroad.

Midwood plans to demolish the property and build apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly” (read: white people). In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, Erme Maula, a lifelong activist for justice and equality, wrote:

The Gloria Casarez mural at 204 S. 12th St. is scheduled for imminent demolition by Midwood Development and Investment. Midwood plans to knock down the former 12th Street Gym and build a 31-story building in its place.

Anyone who knew Gloria and her impact on Philadelphia knows that the loss of the mural is a massive loss for our city. The mural was erected in 2015 to honor Gloria Casarez, a local Latina activist who died of breast cancer in 2014. Gloria dedicated her life to civil and economic rights. She brought communities together to find common ground and common vision. As a student, she organized other students to push for affordable housing and an end to homelessness. As the city’s first director of LGBT affairs, Gloria led Philadelphia to adopt the broadest protections for LGBT people in the nation.

On Monday, October 19, 2020, there will be a “Keep Gloria on 12th” vigil in front of the mural from 5pm to 6:30pm, followed by a Town Hall via Zoom at 7pm. The town hall meeting will provide a space to “plan further actions to stop the erasure of our lives, our achievements, and our history that Gloria fought to preserve.” The vigil and town hall are open to the public. To register, go here.

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.

Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

With 170,000 Americans dead from COVID-19 and millions unemployed, 2020 has been an “annus horribilis” (h/t Queen Elizabeth II). This month brought a ray of hope: Developer K. Hovnanian Homes dropped plans to construct 67 townhouses that would have degraded Abolition Hall and the surrounding fields where the ancestors found sanctuary on their way to freedom.

#AbolitionHall - Overlay - August 14, 2020

Located in Whitemarsh Township, Pennsylvania, the former Underground Railroad stop was constructed in 1856 by George Corson. The purpose-built structure was a meeting place for abolitionists including Frederick Douglass, Harriet Beecher Stowe and William Lloyd Garrison. Abolition Hall, along with the Hovenden House and Stone Barn provided shelter for self-emancipated Black people. The three structures are listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

#Abolition Hall - Michael Feagans

The developer did not give the township a reason for abandoning the project. But the reason seems fairly obvious: With a cratering economy and sinkholes on Butler Pike, Hovnanian didn’t want to sink any more money into the controversial project.

Sybelle Zove, convener of the Friends of Abolition Hall, led the fight to save the historic landmark. In an email, Zove wrote:

This fight is not over! We continue to believe that a better plan is within reach, and we hope that any developer considering a deal with the heirs will appreciate the extraordinary history of this homestead. This is indeed hallowed land, and the historic structures are equally significant. We stand ready to collaborate, to work together to create a project that respects the legacy of this property, the value of its tree canopy, the role of its wetlands in sustaining the local ecology, and the precarious nature of the limestone soils that have yielded to dissolution and sinkhole formation.

I was geared up to collaborate with Friends of Abolition Hall on a years-long battle with the developer. With Hovnanian’s deep pockets and army of lawyers, I didn’t think we could beat them in a court of law. But social media and search engine optimization level the battlefield in the court of public opinion. So I launched VillagesatWhiteMarsh.info to tell the story of the historic landmark and alert prospective buyers that protesters would be at their front door.

#AbolitionHall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is saved – for now. Zove urges everyone to “keep your hand on the plow, and hold on.”

For updates visit Friends of Abolition Hall on Facebook. You can also follow me on Twitter.

#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.

#ThisPlaceMatters: Abolition Hall

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.

Abolition Hall - #ThisPlaceMatters

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.

To that end, I reached out to Michael Coard, a founding member of Avenging The Ancestors Coalition. ATAC won the battle to ensure the National Park Service told the full history of the first President’s House.

Tweet - April 27, 2018 - Abolition Hall - Last Moments of John Brown

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.

Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors Meeting - 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.

For more information, visit Friends of Abolition Hall.