Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was also home to the largest and wealthiest African American population in the country. Philadelphia’s Black elite included Henry Minton (1811-1883), a caterer and abolitionist whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Last year the Philadelphia Historical Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register because its façade has been altered. Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish one of the few extant buildings in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Midwood CEO John Usdan signaled his biased view of history in 2017. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer Usdan said:

Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.

That is what systemic racism in historic preservation sounds like. This is what it looks like. The Historical Commission applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House and “historic” properties in Society Hill could not pass.

For a deeper dive, check out my essay “Henry Minton House, Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation.”

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.

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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.

Driving While Black


From the moment the first enslaved Africans were brought to British colonial America in 1619, Black mobility has been policed. Frederick Douglass had to carry a pass as he traveled across the country to recruit Black troops for the Civil War.

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While white Americans were told to get their kicks on Route 66, African Americans had to put the pedal to the metal lest the sun go down on them in one of the sundown towns along the storied highway.

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A two-hour documentary, “Driving While Black: Race, Space and Mobility in America,” aired on PBS on October 13, 2020.

Gretchen Sorin, director of the Cooperstown Graduate Program of the State University of New York, spent 20 years researching Black mobility. The documentary is based on her book, “Driving While Black: African-American Travel and the Road to Civil Rights.” Sorin, director Ric Burns, producer and editor Emir Lewis, and Spencer Crew, acting director of the National Museum of African American History and Culture, recently participated in a forum at the John F. Kennedy Presidential Library and Museum.

A travel guide, The Negro Motorist Green Book helped Black travelers navigate racialized public spaces. For information about the Green Book in Philadelphia, 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 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.

Gospel Music Heritage Month 2020

Since 2008, September has been designated Gospel Music Heritage Month. Rooted in the African American oral tradition, gospel music helped us get over.

On Wednesday, September 30, 2020, 2:00pm – 3:30pm ET, the Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection at Temple University will celebrate the Reverend Joseph Williams, Jr., an original member of the gospel quartet Sons of the Birds who will be inducted into the Black Music Hall of Fame later this year.

Rev. Williams was also a member of the legendary Dixie Hummingbirds from 1983 to 1987.

Rev. Williams and Dr. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of historic Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church will lead a virtual master class in the history and legacy of gospel music through word and song. To join the conversation, use this link: https://temple.zoom.us/j/91499000220.

The program is free and open but registration is encouraged.

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.