Whose Legacy Is Preserved in Public Memory?

Earlier this year the John Coltrane House Philadelphia was named to the 2020 Preservation at Risk. The Coltrane House is a National Historic Landmark, the highest designation for a historic property. Coltrane enthusiasts worldwide should be outraged that the place where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening has fallen into disrepair. 

John Coltrane House

Before the coronavirus lockdown I was having conversations with credible parties who were interested in the property. Those conversations are now on pause.

In a 2016 interview with CBC Radio, artist, preservationist and urban planner Theaster Gates observed that preservation is not a neutral process:

If you look at the John Coltrane House, it’s not worthy of a particular architectural value but John Coltrane is the most important jazz musician ever in the world, one might say. And how can that Philly house, how can that New York house, just be left to rot. Because my fear is sometimes when you take the material thing away, it becomes that much easier to forget the thing altogether, to forget the person altogether.

[…]

Preservation starts with caring for the material things and then there’s the harder question of like what did this person’s legacy typify? … There should be these reminders in the world that help conflate our today and our histories lest we forget.

For 20 years, the City of Philadelphia spent untold thousands of dollars preserving and securing the Frank Rizzo statue to white supremacy. The statue was finally removed in the wake of a fiery protest. Meanwhile, the city has not spent a dime to preserve the Coltrane House.

It’s not enough to celebrate Coltrane’s birthday on September 23, write about “the most important jazz musician ever in the world,” or sing his praises on social media. We must remind current and future generations about Coltrane by preserving his legacy in public memory.

National Black Voter Day

BET and its partners launched #ReclaimYourVote, a voter education and voter mobilization campaign:

This year-long, nonpartisan campaign — #ReclaimYourVote — will galvanize our community by educating, engaging and empowering action. BET will execute a high-energy campaign that lays out the biggest issues, breaks down otherwise confusing processes and highlights specific ways we can reclaim our collective power.

To register to vote, check your registration, locate your polling place, or information about vote by mail or early voting options in your state, visit vote.org.

As of this writing, Election Day is 51 days away. Get ready, y’all.

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.

A Quest for Parity in Historic Preservation and Public Art

What happens when the institutions making the decisions about removing the Christopher Columbus statue from public view are themselves the legacy of systemic racism?

In my WHYY/PlanPhilly essay, I wrote you get the spectacle of the Philadelphia Historical Commission denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. Commission members know the wealthy developer plans to demolish the building to construct cookie-cutter apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly.”

Seven weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his desire to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. The move came in response to violent protests against anyone who dared to challenge the controversial Italian explorer’s place in colonial history. In a tweet, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Part of reckoning with the legacy of systemic racism means reconsidering what figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces.”

Mayor Jim Kenney - Systemic Racism Tweet - June 24, 2020

But what happens when the institutions doing the reckoning – Philadelphia Historical Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission – are themselves the legacy of systemic racism and racial exclusion?

[…]

At the Historical Commission, the white gaze is the default standard for historical or cultural significance. Implicit bias led to the spectacle of commissioners overruling the unanimous vote of the Committee on Historic Designation and denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. While acknowledging the property meets the statutory criteria for designation, the Commission ruled the façade is not “recognizable” because of an 1894 renovation that concealed the original building.

#HenryMinton House - #PhilaHistorical

Read more

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

Now known as “The Bank of Stephen Girard,” the structure was later renamed Girard National Bank.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map - Girard National Bank

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, 2018

The 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 1911, 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.

Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

Read more

Traveling While Black

The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.

LBJ handing pen to MLK - July 2, 1964

Before 1964, African Americans used travel guides, including The Negro Motorist Green Book, to navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. As this Emmy-nominated virtual reality film shows, African Americans are still traveling while black.

Music and Social Justice

From Washington, DC to Seattle, Washington, the streets are filled with thousands of protesters demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and all victims of police brutality.

breonnataylor-ahmaudarbery-georgefloyd

Music has long fueled movements for social justice. In 1936, Lead Belly denounced racial segregation.

Civil rights activists vowed they weren’t going to let nobody turn them around.

In 1964, Sam Cooke said “a change is gonna come.”

James Brown implored everybody to get involved.

In 1975, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes told us to wake up; no more sleeping in bed.

In the wake of the lynching of George Floyd, “the world has changed so very much from what it used to be.” Spotify’s Black Lives Matter playlist has nearly 850,000 likes.

Frank Rizzo (1999-2020)

Former mayor and police commissioner Frank Rizzo was sued by the Justice Department for a pattern of police brutality that shocks the conscience. Rizzo died on July 16, 1991. He was born again eight years later in the form of a 10-foot monument commissioned by Rizzo family and friends.

#FrankRizzo - Still Larger Than Life - Philadelphia Inquirer - December 1998

The Frank L. Rizzo Memorial Committee decided to place the statue in front of the Municipal Services Building. They also decided it would be unveiled on New Year’s Day 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event best known for clowns prancing around in blackface.

#FrankRizzo - NYT Blackface Clowns

Demonstrators protest ban of blackface in Mummers parade, December 19, 1963

Almost from the moment the hunk-of-junk was unveiled, African Americans and allies peacefully protested for its removal from the gateway to municipal services. Fast forward to 2017, Mayor Jim Kenney said it would be removed by May 2018. Then he said by 2021. Then Kenney said the statue would not be moved before 2022. On May 30, 2020, demonstrators tried to topple it.

#FrankRizzo on Fire

Realizing the jig is up, Kenney said the statue would be removed:

The way its engineered, it’s bolted into the stairs and under the stairs is the concourse where people get their permits and pay their taxes. We didn’t want to tear that up until we did the entire place. We’re going to move it, hopefully in about another month or so. We’re going to accelerate the removal.

The protests accelerated the removal. Rizzo was hauled out three days later. As for the concourse under the stairs, who are we to believe – Kenney or our lying eyes?

Frank Rizzo Down - Concourse - June 3, 2020

Kenney’s lie was compounded by his spokesperson Michael Dunn:

The statue is bolted into the infrastructure of the plaza, which is also the roof of the underground concourse. Removing it while ensuring the integrity of that infrastructure will be a complicated task.

It was such a complicated task the statue was removed under the cover of darkness.

#FrankRizzo - Cover of Darkness

For more on the take down of Frank Rizzo, check out my essay, “The Rizzo reign is finally over. Thank Black Philadelphia.”

In my op-ed, “3 Black Philadelphians whose statues should replace Frank Rizzo” published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I suggested a memorial to Philly native Billie Holiday, who was harassed by then-Police Captain Rizzo, would be poetic justice. In 1939, Lady Day told the world black lives matter.