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Suffer the Children

4 Aug

On or about August 25, 1619, the first enslaved Africans landed in British North America. The 400th anniversary will not be celebrated. Instead, it will be commemorated lest we forget that our ancestors were brought here in the bowels of slave ships.

Slave Ship - Villages at Whitemarsh

For nearly 250 years, our ancestors were sold on the auction block and subjected to unimaginable dehumanization and brutality. Children were separated from their parents and put up for sale.

Negroes for Sale - Villages at Whitemarsh

In her groundbreaking book, The Value of the Enslaved, from Womb to Grave, in the Building of a Nation, Prof. Daina Ramey Berry observed:

The pubescent years were terrifying. Not only were their bodies changing, but this was also a time when enslaved children experienced the separation they had feared all their lives. Daughters and sons were taken from their parents as the external value of their bodies increased. Market scenes from their childhood now made sense and haunted them for the rest of their lives. At this stage in their maturation, they knew full well that others claimed ownership of them and sexual assault came at any age.

Children are at the center of an event organized by Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC), “400 Years of Slavery and Other Official Racism: Never Forget, Always Avenge.” The event will be held on Sunday, August 25, 2019, 2:00 p.m., at the Slavery Memorial/President’s House, located at 6th and Market streets, Philadelphia.

ATAC Co-founder Michael Coard recently wrote:

The highlight of the event will be 400 Black children who will identify and condemn each of the 400 years of slavery as well as its residue, which includes the reactionary Redemption Era, Black Codes, sharecropping, convict leasing, peonage labor, mass lynchings, de jure segregation (known as Jim Crow), de facto segregation, stop-and-frisk, police brutality, mass incarceration, disenfranchising voter ID legislation, court-sanctioned gerrymandering, and other forms of official racial injustice up to and including 2019.

Of the 12.5 million Africans stolen from the Motherland, 26 percent, meaning 3.25 million, were children. And 13 percent of those children, meaning 420,000, died during the more than 60-day Middle Passage voyage in the bottom of feces-filled, urine-soaked, vomit-drenched, rat-infested, disease-ridden “slave” ships. By 1860, shortly before the Civil War, about 33 percent of the nearly 4 million enslaved Black population, meaning 1.32 million, were children. Think about that for a minute.

ATAC - August 25, 2019 - Villages at Whitemarsh

It’s not too late to get your children, grandchildren, nieces, nephews and other young people age 4 to 14 involved. Help them avenge their enslaved ancestors by calling ATAC at (215) 552-8751 or emailing ATAC@AvengingTheAncestors.com and leave a message stating your name, phone number, email address, and the children’s names and ages. The deadline to sign up is August 9.

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Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

5 May

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.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

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.

No More Auction Block for Black Americans

1 Jan

On January 1, 1863, the Emancipation Proclamation issued by President Abraham Lincoln went into effect.

Emancipation Proclamation - Jan. 1, 1863

The executive order changed the legal status of more than 3.5 million enslaved African Americans in 10 designated states and areas then in rebellion against the United States:

That on the first day of January, in the year of our Lord one thousand eight hundred and sixty-three, all persons held as slaves within any State or designated part of a State, the people whereof shall then be in rebellion against the United States, shall be then, thenceforward, and forever free; and the Executive Government of the United States, including the military and naval authority thereof, will recognize and maintain the freedom of such persons, and will do no act or acts to repress such persons, or any of them, in any efforts they may make for their actual freedom.

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in English North America. There will be a year-long commemoration of 400 years of African American history.

#400Years African Ameican History

As the nation gears up to mark this milestone, K. Hovnanian Homes is gearing up to degrade Abolition Hall, a former Underground Railroad station where fugitive slaves found shelter on their journey to freedom. The purpose-built structure is listed on the National Register of Historic Places.

Ignoring the reasoned opposition of Friends of Abolition Hall and allies, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors voted to allow Hovnanian to build 67 townhouses within a stone’s throw of the historic landmark.

While the case winds its way through the courts, we’re taking the case for saving Abolition Hall to the court of public opinion. To that end, we launched VillagesatWhitemarsh.info which redirects to Abolition Hall Deserves Better. For the next 400 days, we will curate news and information to raise awareness among prospective Villages at Whitemarsh buyers that they would be buying into a cookie-cutter development that was built on hallowed ground. So caveat emptor.

Abolition Hall Deserves Better -Villages at Whitemarsh

If you have stories that you would like to share with this crowdsourced project, please contact Abolition Hall Deserves Better.

Remembering John Brown

2 Dec

December 2 marks 159 years since freedom fighter John Brown’s last moments on Earth.

Horace Pippin - John Brown Going to His Hanging

The fiery abolitionist is near and dear to my heart. Many years ago I visited John Brown’s Fort in Harpers Ferry, West Virginia.

John Brown's Fort

I’ve lost count of the number of times I touched base with my hero at the National Portrait Gallery.

John Brown - National Portrait Gallery

I also regularly visit John Brown at the Metropolitan Museum and share with him what’s going on.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden

So you can imagine my reaction when I learned a development project, the Villages at Whitemarsh, would encroach on the studio where Thomas Hovenden painted “The Last Moments of John Brown.”

Abolition Hall, an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found sanctuary in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields, was converted into a studio after the Civil War. The developer, K. Hovnanian Homes, wants to build 67 generic townhouses a stone’s throw from the historic landmark.

Hovnanian won the first round but the fight is far from over. Friends of Abolition Hall appealed the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors’ approval of the developer’s conditional use application.

John Brown’s “body lies a-mouldering in the grave. But his soul goes marching on.” Indeed, I believe to my soul that Abolition Hall deserves better.

To add your voice to those who oppose the desecration of this historic landmark and hallowed ground, please contact us.

#ThisPlaceMatters: Robert Purvis House

14 May

Philadelphia is the birthplace of the American democracy and a City of Firsts. While there are thousands of places that matter, only two percent of historic buildings are listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. Without historic designation, buildings may be demolished with impunity.

Sadly, historic designation provides little protection from demolition by neglect. Without court intervention, that fate may await the Robert Purvis House. Built circa 1859, this is the only extant home of the cofounder of the American Anti-Slavery Society and the Library Company of Colored People. Because of its association with a leading abolitionist, the house is a significant resource within the Spring Garden Historic District.

Robert Purvis Collage

From ExplorePAHistory.com:

In October 1838, the voters of Pennsylvania approved a new state constitution that limited the power of the governor, prohibited the legislature from granting special favors to corporations, and ended life tenure for judges. The new constitution also stripped black Pennsylvanians of their right to vote, a right guaranteed under law since 1790. African Americans had since then lost the ability to vote in some Pennsylvania counties, including Philadelphia. But the constitutional disenfranchisement of black voters was yet another ominous sign of the rising power of the slaveocracy in the United States and of the growing fears of black political and economic power in the state of Pennsylvania.

The appeal quoted above was penned by Robert Purvis, then fast emerging as one of Philadelphia’s most prominent abolitionists. The year before, Purvis was the principal organizer of the Vigilant Association of the Philadelphia, founded to promote the anti-slavery movement and “to create a fund to aid colored persons in distress.” In the decades that followed he and his wife Harriet would use their home to harbor slaves escaping to Canada along the Underground Railroad and Purvis would act as a tireless leader in the struggle not just for the rights of African Americans, but for the equal rights of all Americans, regardless of their race, nationality, or sex.

Noris and Miguel Santiago purchased the Robert Purvis House on December 19, 1977. The couple did not maintain the historic landmark; instead, they racked up years of building code violations.

Robert Purvis House Collage

The slumlords have fought efforts to save the Robert Purvis House. Barbara Wolf has served on the board of the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation since its inception. In an email, Wolf wrote:

The owners of this historic property have repeatedly and persistently failed to take the basic necessary steps, even when court ordered, to maintain and secure this building. Through willful neglect, they have caused the rear of the building to collapse, with resultant city’s demolition because of immediate safety concerns. The son of the owners in a recent court hearing even boldly stated that he wanted the remaining front block of the building to be demolished. This building survived in solid shape for over 100 years before the owners’ purchase in 1977. In a little over 40 years, the rear EL wall has collapsed and the remaining front is seriously deteriorated in an “unsafe” condition.

Wolf’s petition for the appointment of a conservator to restore the Robert Purvis House is supported by the City of Philadelphia. But right now, the property is tangled in a legal morass in federal bankruptcy court. As the result of neglect by financially and morally bankrupt scoundrels, a building that holds stories of organized resistance to slavery may be erased from public memory.

The struggle continues.