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?

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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

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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.

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.