A Note on Abolition Hall

Villages at Whitemarsh is a project of K. Hovnanian Homes, one of the largest developers in the country. Clearly, the developer has boatloads of money with which to influence decision-makers.

Friends of Abolition Hall have influencers who will use social media, earned media – any means necessary – to prevent the degradation of a historic landmark that provided shelter to runaway slaves.

We are amplifying stories posted to sites such as findery.com, a location-based storytelling platform. To that end, we’re sharing Michael Feagans’ note about Abolition Hall, dated March 13, 2016:

Recently I attended a meeting that consisted mainly of residents of Plymouth Meeting, PA. Plymouth Meeting is a small Township a few miles outside of Philadelphia. These neighbors had gathered at the National Register of Historic Places building, Plymouth Friends Meetinghouse, to discuss the possible demolition of additional National Register buildings located directly across the street from where they were currently sitting.

The Corson Family heirs, one of whom currently lives on approximately 10 acres across the busy intersection of Germantown Pike and Butler Pike, had agreed to sell their property. The developer has released plans to build 48 townhouses on the property that currently has several houses on it. Many arguments were given for why this wasn’t a great idea. I was there because there are 2 buildings on the property, Abolition Hall and Hovenden House, that represent what historian Charles Blockson describes as part of “an inspirational shrine, a historical landmark of enormous importance.”

Charles Blockson noted that the entire village of Plymouth Meeting was abolitionist. The meetinghouse, built in 1708, and practically every home and store in the crossroads hamlet was used to hide runaway slaves.

Those who found shelter in Plymouth Meeting were routed five miles up Germantown Pike to Norristown or into Bucks County, where their journey continued to New York State and Canada.

The Corson family risked arrest and violence, to aid slaves on the run.

George Corson was so dedicated to the battle against slavery that in 1859 he converted a barn across from the meetinghouse into 150-seat Abolition Hall, as a platform for the leading anti-slavery speakers of the era.

After the Civil War, Helen Corson married Thomas Hovenden, a famed artist who painted “The Last Moments of John Brown” and made Abolition Hall his studio.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden

Nancy Corson who once lived at Abolition Hall said her great-grandfather, who died before she was born, passed on tales of the Underground Railroad. She said, “There is a story about my great-grandfather transporting runaway slaves at night in a hay wagon. Everyone fell asleep – the people hiding, my grandfather and the horse all fell asleep – and ended up in a ditch.”

If you think Aboliton Hall deserves better, contact us.

Abolition Hall Deserves Better

Few places matter more to me than Underground Railroad sites. Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, Pennsylvania is one such site.

cropped-abolitionhalldeservesbetter.jpg

The historic landmark is under threat by a proposal to build 67 townhouses on the George Corson homestead.

Abolition Hall - Google Earth - Villages at Whitemarsh

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.

After months of testimony and public comments, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors voted 4 to 0 to approve K. Hovnanian Homes’ Villages at Whitemarsh proposal.

Say Their Names - Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors

Philadelphia Inquirer Architecture Critic Inga Saffron blasted the proposal:

The latest proposal would dump 67 townhouses right into the heart of the village and dramatically disrupt the historic ensemble. K. Hovnanian Homes wants to cram the townhouses behind the main house on the 10-acre Corson property. Although the house and Abolition Hall would remain standing, the new buildings would come virtually to their back doors. Hovnanian would leave the two historic buildings with 1.4 acres between them. It’s hard to imagine how they could thrive on such tiny plots.

The 22 conditions the Board of Supervisors attached to the draft resolution are mere fig leaves. According to Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, roughly half of the conditions simply note that the project must comply with specific Code provisions. Zove said:

Clearly, the outcome of these seven months of hearings is disappointing. The public is vehemently against this project – for a variety of reasons. For some it is the increase in traffic congestion. For others it is the loss of open space. Of course, most people are deeply appalled by the planned degradation of a nationally significant homestead. Then there’s the issue of the wetlands, the exacerbation of sinkholes (there are three large ones nearby and several on the property), and the concern about the fate of the historic structures. Take your pick – it ain’t pretty no matter how you slice or dice it.

A number of local and state agencies must sign off on the butt-ugly plan, including the Whitemarsh Planning Commission and the Historical Architectural Review Board. So it ain’t over.

2019 marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to colonial America. The milestone will be commemorated across the country. The African American story cannot be told without Abolition Hall. For the next 400 days, I will curate news and information about the proposal because Abolition Hall – and the ancestors – deserve better.