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.

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Abolition Hall Deserves Better

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

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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.