I’ll be back after Labor Day.
I was awarded a Diversity Scholarship to attend PastForward 2015. The National Preservation Conference is the premier educational and networking event for those interested in saving places of historical significance. In the lead-up to the November conference, the National Trust for Historic Preservation has relaunched its “This Place Matters” campaign.
Philadelphia has thousands of places that matter, including First African Baptist Church, founded in 1809. The building at Christian and 16th Streets has been the congregation’s home since 1906.
In the application for designation in the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, Oscar Beisert, an architectural historian, wrote:
The building at the southwest corner of Christian and 16th Streets was constructed in 1906, and is significant as one of the oldest purpose‐built African American houses of worship in Philadelphia, as well as the only extant building representing the oldest African Baptist congregation—First African Baptist, which was the fifth African American congregation to be founded in Philadelphia. The building at 1600‐06 Christian Street is the longest home of the congregation, who has worshiped in this space for over 100 years. Furthermore, the building represents an important community center in the local community from 1906 through the early twenty‐first century .
For members of First African Baptist Church who want to save this historic structure, the place that mattered last week was Courtroom 446 in City Hall, where a hearing was held on whether the property is an “imminent danger” to public safety.
The civil action was brought by the Department of Licenses and Inspections. L&I wants a court order to allow a structural engineer to inspect a parapet on 16th Street and make recommendations. It was noted that the church is occupied and continues to hold Sunday Service in the main sanctuary.
Although First African Baptist Church is the defendant, they didn’t put up much of a defense. Sharif Street, the church’s lawyer, repeatedly said they are “not seeking demolition.” Instead, they’re seeking demolition by neglect. Street made it clear the church does not want to pay for any repairs. The reason: The pastor, Rev. Terrence Griffith, wants to sell the church to a developer who plans to demolish it.
Rev. Griffith dismisses preservationists as “crusaders coming out of the woodwork.” I wonder whether he would include the presiding judge among the “crusaders.” In open court, Municipal Court Judge Craig M. Washington said:
It’s a very important building to America, not just to Philadelphia, not just to the Baptists.
Judge Washington granted the order. The engineer’s report is due Oct. 1, when the parties will be back in court.
In the meantime, the courtroom drama moves to the Court of Common Pleas. On June 26, 2015, Prudence Harvey and other First African Baptist Church members filed a lis pendens against Diversified Realty Ventures LLC and Rev. Griffith. In plain English, a lis pendens puts a prospective buyer on notice of a competing claim to real estate. Rev. Griffith says he’s been offered $3.2 million for the church. Time will tell whether that “binding” agreement is worth the paper it’s written on.
I asked Ms. Harvey what’s at stake:
For those folks who had put out blood, sweat and tears that was in itself significant and historic. It’s also considered historic nationwide. The building matters. That’s our legacy. If it is not your legacy, it doesn’t matter.
The nomination of First African Baptist Church will be considered by the Philadelphia Historical Commission Committee on Historic Designation on Sept. 16. I plan to offer public comment in support of the nomination. Yes, I’m on a crusade. It’s a crusade to honor our ancestors’ blood, sweat and tears. It’s also about honoring the legacy of the two congregants who voluntarily sold themselves into slavery to enable the third pastor, Rev. James Burrows, to lead First African Baptist Church.
If you want to join the crusade to save this historic place, get involved with Avenging the Ancestors Coalition Committee on Historic Preservation, which I chair. For more information, call (215) 552-8751 or follow me on Twitter.
A new report by the U.S. Census Bureau found that voter turnout in the 2014 congressional elections was at an all-time low. The turnout rate of 41.9 percent was the lowest since the bureau started collecting voter participation data in 1978.
How low can voter turnout go? Well, in the birthplace of our democracy, a special election took place last week and hardly any voters showed up. The winners received a combined total of 6,185 votes.
The election was held to fill three legislative seats, two of which became vacant following the incumbents pleading guilty to multiple counts of conflict of interest.
Ronald Waters represented the 191st legislative district. Backed by Democratic ward leaders, his replacement, Joanna McClinton, received 1,419 votes.
While a win is a win, the anemic turnout reflects a political system that has lost the trust of the people. Where else but in a notoriously “corrupt and contented” city would the winner “celebrate” her victory by posing with the disgraced politician who she was elected to replace.
So much for a new beginning.
UPDATE: The Philadelphia Daily News reports that turnout in the 195th Legislative District was seven percent. The no-shows included Anthony Clark, chairman of the commission that oversees elections.
Clark enjoys the support of Congressman Bob Brady, the longtime chairman of the Philadelphia Democratic City Committee. Clark’s continued employment is an affront to the taxpayers and further undermines trust in government.
Waller County District Attorney Elton Mathis has opened a criminal investigation into the death of Sandra Bland. The vivacious 28-year-old was on her way to start a new job at her alma mater, Prairie View A&M University.
Sandra was pulled over for failing to signal while changing lanes. I don’t drive but Sandra’s death speaks to me in a way the other suspicious deaths while in police custody did not.
I’m chair of Avenging the Ancestors Coalition (F)ilm the Police Committee. I, too, believe that change starts with the person in the mirror.
Like Sandra, I know my rights during a police encounter. I also know that if provoked, I could go off. Hell, I got irritated viewing the dashcam video. I can imagine that Sandra was wondering what was taking the trooper so long to write a ticket or let her go.
To Texas State Trooper Brian Encinia, Sandra’s “crime” was “her whole arrogant attitude.” She exercised her right “not to kiss the officer’s butt.” Like it or not, we have the right to mouth off to cops.
The medical examiner ruled that Sandra “committed suicide by hanging.” We will likely never know what happened in her jail cell. We must not let Sandra’s death be in vain.
If you’re stopped by the police, say her name. But then bite your tongue because rule number one to survive a police encounter is to STFU. That way, you can live to fight another day.
The struggle continues.
On Saturday, I attended the Harlem Book Fair.
I’m a doer. I enjoy spending an afternoon listening to speakers who approach issues on which I focus, including voting rights, civil rights, black culture and community engagement, from the perspective of a scholar. Sometimes scholars drop some unexpected truth.
I can’t count the number of times I have invoked Sojourner Truth’s “Ain’t I a Woman?” speech before the 1851 Women’s Rights Convention in Akron, Ohio.
There’s just one problem: Sojourner Truth never uttered those words. Nell I. Painter, author of Sojourner Truth: A Life, A Symbol, was one of the panelists on “Fashioning the Self: The Image in Black” (Painter is on the far left).
According to Painter, Sojourner Truth never said, “Ain’t I a woman.” She “said things that meant that,” but not those exact words. As for the Southern dialect, more fiction. Sojourner Truth was not a Southerner. She never traveled farther south than Washington, DC.
Sojourner Truth was born and raised in upstate New York. She grew up speaking Dutch as her first language. Truth be told, Sojourner likely spoke with a Dutch accent.
Painter said that Sojourner Truth showed herself as a well-dressed, mannered matron, not as an angry black woman who flashed her breasts at a convention.
The panel discussion is available on C-SPAN2 Book TV.