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.