Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. What matters to me is the loss of historic places that hold the ancestors’ stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

A recent report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia has the fourth highest rate of gentrification. The 34-page report is encapsulated in a statement by Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan who lays bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand:

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.

The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, black history apparently is not American history.

As I commented before the Philadelphia Historical Commission when the property was nominated for listing on the local register, this places matters:

Henry Minton belonged to an elite guild of caterers and was a leader in the free black community. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

There is not much more to add other than Minton provided freedom fighter John Brown “with bed and board” shortly before his raid upon Harper’s Ferry. It should also be noted that Minton is listed on the iconic Civil War poster, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Clearly, the nomination satisfies Criteria A and J for Designation.

The provenance of the front façade is a distraction. The property is not being nominated because of its architectural significance. So the National Register roadmap for evaluating integrity is irrelevant. Viewed through the African American lens, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s about recognizing that our stories matter. African American history matters.

Commission members acknowledged the property does indeed meet the criteria for designation. Still, they reversed the unanimous decision of the Committee on Historic Designation and voted to toss the building on the trash heap of history.

Henry Minton Residence - Committee on Designation Vote

#PhilaHistorical Commission Vote to Decline Designation - April 12, 2019
This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America. While African American history is more than slavery, our story begins with the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” in Virginia. So whether one focuses on 1639 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Philadelphia or 1939 when Billie Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

So where’s our story? I will talk about disappearing blackness on WHYY Radio Times on Thursday, May 9, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 am. The station can be heard in Philadelphia and New Jersey. You can join the conversation on Twitter (@whyyradiotimes) or call 888-477-9499.

Ironically, WHYY is in the footprint of Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob three days after it opened. Philadelphia’s mayor, firefighters and police stood by and did nothing.

Pennsylvania Hall Marker

Pennsylvania Hall - WHYY

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.

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International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and Transatlantic Slave Trade 2019

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 25 as an annual International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In a video message, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:

The transatlantic slave trade was one of history’s most appalling manifestations of human barbarity. We must never forget the crimes and impacts, in Africa and beyond, across the centuries.

[…]

We need to tell the stories of those who stood up against their oppressors, and recognize their righteous resistance. On this International Day of Remembrance, we pay homage to the millions of African men, women and children who were denied their humanity and forced to endure such abominable cruelty.

Harriet Tubman stood up against her oppressors. After her escape, she returned to Maryland and led hundreds of men, women and children to freedom in the North. Tubman repurposed lyrics from the slave song “Wade in the Water” to instruct enslaved African Americans on how to avoid detection.

Fittingly, on this International Day of Remembrance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture unveiled the Emily Howland photography album that contains a previously unknown portrait of Tubman. It is believed to be the earliest existing photo of the celebrated Underground Railroad conductor.

Harriet Tubman - NMAAHC Unveiling - March 25, 2019

NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III said in a statement:

This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail. This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist. Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than we realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist—it helps to humanize such an iconic figure.

We also know the legacy of forced migration and 250 years of free labor is present today. It is present in the wealth gap, school-to-prison pipeline, and inequitable school funding. The brutalization of black bodies dates back to the policing of enslaved African Americans by slave patrols.

Slave-Patrol-Article-

The struggle continues.

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.