Remarking African American History in Philadelphia

Earlier this year, I wrote about the unmarking of African American history in Philadelphia. Historical markers associated with black achievement and seminal events are missing, damaged or desecrated. The conversation about the erasure of black presence from public spaces began at a Kwanzaa celebration. Since then, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) formed the Historical Marker Monitoring Committee of which I am chairperson.

The overarching issue is whose story is told and whose story is preserved in public memory. In 1990, Dr. Charles L. Blockson led the fight to get our stories memorialized on historical markers. We now have to fight to preserve them.

We must be vigilant to ensure public memorials are respected. When I saw the South Street Headhouse District (SSHD) had chained a trash can to the W.E.B. DuBois historical marker, community activist Joe Cox and I were prepared to use bolt cutters to remove it. But SSHD removed it before we got there.

W.E.B. DuBois Collage - Faye Anderson

On March 2nd, I noticed UPS had placed a drop box within inches of the London Coffee House marker which notes the place where African Americans’ ancestors were sold on the auction block. After a “trial by Twitter,” UPS saw the error of their ways and moved the drop box a respectable distance from the marker.

London Coffee House Collage - Faye Anderson

The historical marker program is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission (PHMC). The agency is responsible for maintaining a marker once installed. The marker honoring Sister Rosetta Tharpe is being refurbished.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collage

PHMC lacks the resources to replace missing markers. So it’s imperative that we identify who removed the public memorial and hold them accountable. The Legendary Blue Horizon historical marker was removed between May 5, 2018 and November 17, 2018. The construction companies working on the north and south side of the historic landmark, Ernest Bock & Sons Inc. and Tester Construction Group LLC respectively, point the finger at each other. We know the marker didn’t walk away. Ray Charles could see equipment was used to remove the pole from the sidewalk.

Blue Horizon Collage2

While the construction companies play the blame game, ATAC is not playing. At the group’s March meeting, it was decided that members will call and write Councilman Darrell Clarke in whose district the Legendary Blue Horizon is located. If he continues to ignore his constituents, we will show up at the April 25th meeting of City Council. Perhaps then Clarke will see the problem of disappearing blackness and hold developers accountable.

#DisappearingBlackness2

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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.

American History 101

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.

Katy Perry - Blackface2

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

Happy Birthday Mr. Douglass

Like his fellow bondsmen, Frederick Douglass did not know his date of birth. Mr. Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14. It’s a fitting day since there is nothing but radical love for the man who was the most photographed man of the 19th century.

For Mr. Douglass’ birthday, I will agitate to stop K. Hovnanian Homes from degrading Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where the gifted orator spoke to 200 people. Hovnanian’s proposed cookie-cutter townhouse development, the Villages at Whitemarsh, would put the historic landmark at risk.

Abolition Hall - Villages at Whitemarsh
Jazz bassist Tyrone Brown and violinist John Blake’s A Sky with More Stars: Suite for Frederick Douglass is a loving tribute to the iconic agitator and statesman.

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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African American History Month 2019

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.

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No More Auction Block for Black Americans

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln went into effect.

Emancipation Proclamation - January 1, 1863

The executive order changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved black 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.

#400Years African Ameican 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.

Abolition Hall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

If you have stories that you would like to share with this crowdsourced project, please contact us.