I was awarded a Diversity Scholarship to attend PastForward. 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 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.” 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 claims 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.
It’s been nearly 15 years since the 2000 Florida presidential election. Under then-Gov. Jeb Bush’s watch, tens of thousands of African Americans were purged from the voter rolls. “Florida” has since become a metaphor for voter disenfranchisement.
I watched with disbelief as Bush tried to woo black voters at the National Urban League’s annual conference:
I know there are great and lasting things we can achieve together, maybe only together, to keep America faithful to its ideals of equality and justice for all. Your support in that effort is something I will work every day to earn. I welcome your friendship, and I ask for your vote.
He must think African Americans are stupid or have collective amnesia.
Bush certified the contested 2000 election for his brother, George W., who got a measly nine percent of the black vote. As the writer and producer of a documentary about the election debacle, Counting on Democracy, I plan to refresh folks’ memory of how black voters were “Bushwacked” in Florida. There’s also a new generation of voters who have never heard of hanging and dangling chads, or seen a punch card ballot.
By the way, one of the key players in Florida was the legendary dirty trickster, Roger Stone, who I interviewed for the film. Stone is now working for Donald Trump.
Stone must be up to his old tricks. He reportedly was fired by Trump. Stone said he quit.
But I digress.
Counting on Democracy, narrated by Ossie Davis and Ruby Dee, aired nationwide on PBS in 2002. If you would like to arrange a screening for your school, class, organization or church, email me.
Aug. 6 marks the 50th anniversary of the Voting Rights Act.
Last week, Congressman Chaka Fattah was charged with racketeering, conspiracy, bribery, bank fraud, money laundering and falsification of records. As I read the 29-count indictment, I thought the ancestors must be rolling over in their graves. The struggle for voting rights was about empowering African Americans to vote for candidates who would represent their interests.
Fifty years after Bloody Sunday, we have an entitled political class that is more interested in advancing their personal interests, and that of their family and friends.
In a Fox29 man-on-the-street interview, a constituent said it best:
He’s [Fattah] supposed to be bringing us up, not taking from us.
And that’s precisely what Fattah allegedly did. Co-conspirator Herbert Vederman allegedly sponsored Fattah’s live-in au pair.
A nonprofit run by a Fattah crony received a $1 million grant from NASA to support a STEM program for members of underrepresented groups. The crony, now co-conspirator, allegedly used some of the funds to repay a political loan.
This scheme should take the steam out of those who are quick to holler that black elected officials are harassed. If your hand is not in the cookie jar, you don’t have to worry about unfair scrutiny.
The allegation that he is the legislative equivalent of a capo didn't seem to impress Fattah, who has been under investigation long enough to repeatedly seek and win reelection regardless. While glibly allowing that the indictment is more significant than "Deflategate" - an airy scandal involving footballs - Fattah answered a disturbingly detailed 29-count indictment by reiterating a general denial and vowing to "try not to have it be a distraction."
In fact, the charges are so serious as to render Fattah's service a distraction. Even if he hasn't serially abused his office, as the charges suggest, he will be a busy defendant. As neither is compatible with his continued service, he should step down.
Such grave allegations, along with the pleas that preceded them, are a blot on what seemed to be a distinguished political career, and the latest in a long line for Philadelphia Democrats. Fattah is entitled to be presumed innocent unless proven otherwise. But he is not entitled to his office.
If Fattah doesn’t resign, his trial may a “distraction” for Democrats when they convene in this notoriously “corrupt and content” city for the 2016 Democratic National Convention.