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Abolition Hall is Saved – For Now

16 Aug

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.

Harriet Tubman Day 2020

8 Mar

Like most enslaved African Americans, Harriet Tubman did not know her date of her birth. So we remember the “Moses of Her People” on the date of her death, March 10, 1913.

In 1990, President George W. Bush proclaimed March 10 “Harriet Tubman Day”:

In celebrating Harriet Tubman’s life, we remember her commitment to freedom and rededicate ourselves to the timeless principles she struggled to uphold. Her story is one of extraordinary courage and effectiveness in the movement to abolish slavery and to advance the noble ideals enshrined in our Nation’s Declaration of Independence: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”

After escaping from slavery herself in 1849, Harriet Tubman led hundreds of slaves to freedom by making a reported 19 trips through the network of hiding places known as the Underground Railroad. For her efforts to help ensure that our Nation always honors its promise of liberty and opportunity for all, she became known as the “Moses of her People.”

Serving as a nurse, scout, cook, and spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, Harriet Tubman often risked her own freedom and safety to protect that of others. After the war, she continued working for justice and for the cause of human dignity. Today we are deeply thankful for the efforts of this brave and selfless woman – they have been a source of inspiration to generations of Americans.

In recognition of Harriet Tubman’s special place in the hearts of all who cherish freedom, the Congress has passed Senate Joint Resolution 257 in observance of “Harriet Tubman Day,” March 10, 1990, the 77th anniversary of her death.

Cynthia Erivo starred in Harriet, the biopic for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress.

Erivo also received an Academy Award nomination for Best Original Song for “Stand Up” which she co-wrote with Joshuah Brian Campbell.

I will stand up for Harriet Tubman at the Harriet Ross Tubman Monument in Bristol, Pennsylvania.

Harriet Tubman Memorial Monument, Bristol, PA

Sadly, partisan politics has delayed release of the Harriet Tubman $20 bill until 2028. Meanwhile, sections of Dixie Highway in Florida will be renamed in tribute to the iconic freedom fighter.

Visualizing Slavery

15 Dec

The oldest-known photograph of enslaved black people with cotton was recently purchased at auction for $324,500 on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Visualizing Slavery

Sabrina Imbler reports:

The image is simple haunting. Ten enslaved African-American people stand in front of a two-story, white clapboard building, some with baskets of cotton on top of their heads. A boy bows his head in the lower-left corner, his back to the camera. It’s a quarter-plate daguerreotype, a little larger than a deck of cards but brimming with details visible only when magnified: the individual leaves of the plants encircling a well, the woven wicker of the baskets. The antebellum photograph, believed to date back to the 1850s, is the oldest-known image of enslaved people with cotton, the commodity that they were forced to harvest.

Recently, at Cowan’s American History auction, the Hall Family Foundation purchased the photograph for $324,500, on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “I had never seen an image like this before,” says Jane Aspinwall, the curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Images of enslaved African-American people are relatively rare, and were almost always taken at the behest of the slaveholder, according to critic Stephen Best in “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive,” published in a 2011 issue of the journal Representations. “However exhaustive one’s catalog of the visual archive of slavery, it will always be lacking in works by slaves themselves,” he writes.

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Visualizing Racism

8 Dec

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Still, the fight over the meaning of the South’s Lost Cause continues.

Picture this: Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said the Confederate Flag was hunky-dory until Dylan Roof “hijacked” it from the descendants of slave owners and their sympathizers for whom it symbolized “service, and sacrifice and heritage.”

Haley’s spin is fake news. William T. Thompson long ago spilled the tea on the meaning of the Confederate flag.

Confederate-Flag-Design

The symbol of white supremacy was weaponized during the Jim Crow era as African Americans fought for equal protection under the law and civil rights.

Confederate Flag - Don't You Wish You Were White

Confederate Flag - We Want a White School

A recent issue of the Washington Post Magazine is devoted to photography that documents struggles with racism. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in the introduction:

Racism is this nation’s telltale heart beating ominously in the collective subconscious. From time to time we come to believe we have expiated and silenced it once and for all. But then it is back — changed, perhaps attenuated, but unmistakable.

[…]

This is how the war against racism goes: progress, setback, optimism, despair — a cycle that frustratingly repeats and yet somehow inches us forward. Racism may be worse than in the recent past, but the individual and collective punishment it metes out is a shadow of what black Americans suffered a half-century ago. We have no choice but to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. We have somehow taken a detour, however, and must find our way back to the true path.

This issue is devoted to photography that documents this moment — not just our external struggle with racism, but the internal struggles as well. Some of the images are beautiful and unsettling. Some are jarring. If some make us uncomfortable, that is progress. An easy conversation about racism is not a real conversation at all.

The full issue is available here.

Public Memory and Place Matter

13 Oct

In a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, the writers asked: Whose history gets recognized in our public spaces?

Ultimately, the fight over Barry Farm is about more than those last 32 buildings left standing. It signifies a larger struggle over representation in our physical spaces, one that has only intensified as cities become more divided, unaffordable, and unequal. This struggle has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from efforts to remove racist memorials from public plazas to movements to protect Black culture on rapidly gentrifying blocks. Within all these actions is one critical, underlying message: Black history matters.

In Philadelphia, our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.

Henry Minton House - Inquirer

Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. In a news article, 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.”

For this developer, black history is not American history. And black folks are not included in Usdan’s vision for a changing city since he is building for “the demographic moving to Philly.”

First they displace us. Then they erase us.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

The National Museum for African American History and Culture’s exhibition “Power of Place” underscores that place matters:

People make places even as places change people. Places are secured by individual and collective struggle and spirit. Place is about movement and migration and dis-placement. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, and where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time.

On October 22, PlanPhilly is holding a panel discussion, “Place, Preservation and Public Memory in Philadelphia.” All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson is a panelist, along with Paul Farber, Ori Feibush and Karen Olivier. The event is free but you must register. To reserve your spot, go here.