Sankofa Closing Celebration Recap

Panoramic view of Chronicling Resistance pop-up exhibit, the barn at Bartram’s Garden, May 7, 2019. Photo Credit: Ilhan Citak

The first phase of “Chronicling Resistance” held its last major event on May 7 at Bartram’s Garden and Sankofa Farm, with 27 people in attendance. The event began in the Barn with a pop-up exhibit featuring enlarged copies of resistance-related historical materials from local libraries and archives. Attendees had the opportunity to engage with these materials before hearing the program.

The formal portion of the event began with a welcome and introduction to “Chronicling Resistance” from project director Mariam Williams. Williams discussed several of the documents in the exhibit, noting that they show the risks people took, conflicts within movements, and connections to the space where we were, as several were directly connected to Southwest Philadelphia.

 

Chronicling Resistance pop-up exhibit at the barn, Bartram’s Garden, May 7, 2019. Photo credit: Ilhan Citak

Williams described some of the work of the project, including the questions that have been asked throughout the project, some of the listening sessions we have held, and a preliminary look at findings. These included the importance of feeling placed and rooted through history, how programming and art can help people to establish meaningful connections with the past, and how lack of knowledge about what is available is a barrier in connecting many people to archives. Williams closed with a vision for future “Chronicling Resistance” work, which includes striking “enabling” from the formal title and replacing it with “affirming.”

The evening then transitioned to a conversation among Williams, Shani Akilah, one of the founders of the Black and Brown Worker’s Cooperative (BBWC), and Sade Black, a youth worker at Sankofa Farm, about the theme of Sankofa. “Sankofa” is a word in the Twi language which signifies that there is nothing wrong with going back to pick up something you have forgotten. The term connects with the work of “Chronicling Resistance” because it helps to remind us that remembering is something we must practice, and that remembering is especially difficult for people whose histories have been erased. Remembering gives context and provides roots; it is an act of resistance to say “we were here, we are here” and to preserve what is actively being erased.

The conversation opened with discussions about the work each is doing. Black described her work learning about African culture, cooking African food and foods from the African diaspora, teaching new students to farm and cook, and the deep connections of food to history. Sankofa Farm provides opportunities to learn things she doesn’t learn in school, such as how African women preserved crops to save their culture and heritage when they were enslaved in the Americas. Akilah began with their family history; as a descendent of Jamaican Maroons and Haitians, they carry their history of freedom and rebellion with them, and this has informed what they believe is possible. BBWC works for an expansion of democracy and an acknowledgement that black and brown workers do much of the front-line work in social justice movements but still suffer under white supremacy.

Shani Akilah (L) and Sade Black presenting at “Chronicling Resistance Presents: Sankofa,” Bartram’s Garden, May 7, 2019. Photo credit: Ilhan Citak

For both Sade and Shani, their activism and work is a way to reach back and remember. Black noted that farming was not part of the community she grew up in, but that a connection to the land is part of her culture, although one that is not widely recognized in among African American youth in Philadelphia. Getting an education, and in turn educating others, is itself an act of resistance. Akilah emphasized the importance of moving beyond incremental change in becoming the dreams of our ancestors; they are inspired by slave rebellions, Harriet Tubman, Toussaint L’Ouverture, and other people who have been criminalized for what they know. Remembering the truth is the deepest work we can do, because society functions on falsehood and false projects, and we must get at the truth.

Both Akilah and Black spoke about the importance of lifting up the work of black women, who are often erased from the work that they do; this is part of a commitment to collective liberation. Akilah noted the contributions of Ella Baker to the Civil Rights movement, although she is not familiar to many; Black noted the inspiration she derives from Harriet Tubman, who went back many times to save her own people.

In discussing how people should learn about stories in the future, and how their work should be remembered, Akilah noted that one should always ask “is this the moment I should be speaking?” before doing so, and recognize when to allow other voices to be heard; things are missed when people tell stories for others rather than allowing them to speak. Black emphasized the importance of not waiting for other people or school to tell you about history, but to seek it out and to use your voice, not allowing yourself to be silenced. Akilah also noted the importance of oral tradition.  

After the conclusion of this conversation, attendees took a tour of Sankofa Farm with Chris Bolden-Newsome, one of its co-directors. Bolden-Newsome described the goals of the farm, including reconnecting African-Americans to the land, as the culture has all but abandoned the value Africans traditionally place on spending time in nature, and farming is often seen as connected to slavery, when black people were forced to labor on the land in bondage. Sankofa Farm is rooted in the community of Southwest Philadelphia, and is sacred ground where all the plants that are grown have historical and cultural meaning, in addition to providing nutrition. Bolden-Newsome prefers to talk about resilience rather than resistance, because he sees this as a better description of how people can live their lives.

Following the farm tour, attendees were invited to an outdoor picnic dinner catered by Atiya Ola’s Spirit First Foods, an African-American family-owned restaurant that deeply connects spiritual and nutritional nourishment.

 

From Housewifery to Coalition Building to Holding Office

Editor’s Note: Housed at Lehigh University, the Nancy Shukaitis papers provide insight into the roles of women and indigenous peoples in the Philadelphia area conservation and environmental movements. A housewife catalyzed by federal threats to raze her home, Shukaitis found herself linked to Native Americans’ long history of displacement. How are some of the least-expected populations moved to resistance and to building coalitions? What are the issues that link people of different backgrounds?


Nancy Shukaitis: The Unexpected Activist

By Rachael Bucci and Berto Sicard, Lehigh University

Collage of materials relating to the opposition of Nancy Michael Shukaitis to the Tocks Island Dam. Lehigh University Library.

In the 1960s, the United States federal government planned the construction of the Tocks Island Dam. The construction plan aimed to build a 37-mile barrier beyond the shores of the Delaware River to be utilized for drinking water, hydroelectricity, and flood protection. Congress and the four governors of the states belonging to the Delaware River Basin Commission — Delaware, Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and New York — made up part of the large support network for the dam proposal. Despite the dam’s numerous projected benefits, it posed serious issues for many people. To construct the dam, the government planned to use eminent domain to acquire the property of approximately 1,200 people living in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. Nancy Shukaitis was among the people who lost her land, but she refused to fade into the background while the government displaced people from their homes. Instead, she dedicated her time and efforts to fighting the Tocks Island Dam project as well as opposing industrial and commercial development initiatives of the natural land.

Shukaitis did not evoke the typical image of resistance in the 1960s. When the government developed the Tocks proposal, Shukaitis was a housewife. Her empathy and investment in the community sparked an activist’s spirit, despite it not being a traditional role for married white women with young families at that time. She began organizing by informing the public of the controversial nature of the project and promoting water conservation. She raised awareness through various platforms: corresponding with local, state, and federal political officials, holding public meetings to spread the word, and writing to newspapers. As she became more invested, Shukaitis worked in several environmental protection groups such as the Delaware Valley Conservation Association, Save the Delaware Coalition, and Lenni Lenape League to further raise awareness surrounding the Tocks Island Dam and water conservation.  

Environmental impacts of the dam were nebulous at best. Several locations along the Delaware River were considered for construction, yet serious problems arose at each point. Because of unideal geological formations for hydroelectricity, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers planned to destroy large scenic mountains in the Delaware Water Gap. Sediment accumulation threatened larger floods at the site of the dam. There was no guarantee water purity would be maintained, despite a prime incentive of building the dam being the exportation of water to Philadelphia and New York. Moreover, a large portion of the land to be flooded was home to priceless Native American artifacts.

The dam’s threat to destroy Native American artifacts motivated Native Americans to build coalitions with Shukaitis. The Lenape, also called the Delaware People, were indigenous to the proposed area. They protested the construction of the dam for over three decades to preserve their land and artifacts. Born in Smithfield, PA, in an area called “Shawnee on the Delaware,” and as a member of the Lenni Lenape League, Shukaitis’s local identity gave her another angle from which to combat the proposed construction. She joined the efforts of the Lenape Indians to protect the land and objects belonging to their ancestral roots.

Many asked Shukaitis why she had not stepped aside and let her husband take over the project. That option had never crossed her mind. Shukaitis and her activist colleagues gave testimony to the U.S. Congress in 1965 and succeeded in preventing development of 70,000 acres. On September 1, 1965, Congress established the land as the Delaware Water Gap National Recreation Area to manage lands surrounding the proposed Tocks Island Dam. Nonetheless, for several decades, various interest groups continued efforts to claim the land. As the first woman elected commissioner of Monroe County in 1967, Shukaitis was able to stop the construction of a luxury hotel soon after the land was protected. In 1978, Congress established the Middle Delaware National Scenic River, which blocked the construction of future dams.

Congress formally de-authorized the Tocks Island proposal in 1992, but threats to the land continued. In 2011, PPL Corporation proposed a $1.2 billion power line project through the park. Long retired from politics, Shukaitis helped citizens sue to protect the land and succeeded in preventing the project.  

Nancy Shukaitis’s acts of resistance protected a scenic landmark from destruction, and her efforts can be appreciated more today than ever before. In the middle of the twentieth century, the impact of dams was not completely understood. Today, time and research have enabled society to understand that dams can irreversibly alter ecosystems and wipe out local species. Thus, while Shukaitis protected land that formerly belonged to her, she also helped maintain the harmony and ecosystem of the area in general for decades to come. Her persistence in activism on behalf of her community has inspired several generations, and she is still honored by local environmental and political foundations.

 

 

Sisters in Freedom Screening at Paschalville Library Recap

Seven people, all women of color, joined us for another screening of Sisters in Freedom on Tuesday, March 19, 2019. The post-film discussion went quickly to resistance after one viewer remarked that women are still out knocking on doors and getting petitions signed.

A few of the women had canvassed for political campaigns and all said they were informed voters. They lamented the apathy they perceive among most people today. From their perspective, Philadelphia’s racial inequality persists in education, income, wealth, and housing, but they don’t see anyone in younger generations resisting these challenges. They cited the threat to raze Bartram Village, a housing project in Southwest Philadelphia, as an example. According to the viewers, residents of the projects and of Southwest Philadelphia have accepted that Bartram Village’s demolition is inevitable and that poor people will be displaced from their homes.

The amoebic discussion centered around the erosion of community structures that in the past kept people informed and able to form a more united activist front. Housing integration led to white flight and middle-class black flight. People used to learn about political issues at churches, but church attendance has declined. Parents on the block knew one another because their children played together, and mothers watched each other’s children; now children go to daycare and don’t play with their neighbors. Incarceration has taken away too many fathers. High property taxes, imminent domain, and gentrification have pushed longtime residents out of their homes in South, Southwest, and Kensington. The women noted that their neighborhood library is the closest thing they have to a community gathering space and is where they’re most likely to learn about social issues.

The women noted that the female abolitionists had rallied across racial lines for a common cause. They thought similar alliances would be formed today, if women could find a common cause. They felt this was unlikely, however, as everyone seems to have a different issue that’s important to them. Some care about the environment, some education, some wage equality. Viewers saw how some of these causes could be linked. They believed, for example, that if the minimum wage were raised so high that public assistance was eliminated, more people would demand accountability for how their taxes are spent, particularly in education.

“Sisters in Freedom” Screening Summary

“Sisters in Freedom” screening summary

This event was held in collaboration with History Making Productions, which produced the film “Sisters in Freedom”. The event began with an introduction to the film and to the Chronicling Resistance project and its aims. Six attendees then watched the film, which is about the advocacy of black and white women in Philadelphia for the abolition of slavery and the ways in which they worked together. Stories include those of Ona Judge, Lucretia Mott, and Sarah Mapps Douglass.

Discussion after the film centered on the importance of untold stories, things that are not taught in school, and how much Philadelphia history is unknown to many. Attendees noted that in school slavery is often presented as something that happened only in the South, while the film made clear it was also an issue in Philadelphia. Most people in the room had not heard the story of Pennsylvania Hall, built by abolitionists and destroyed by those in favor of slavery and colonization soon after its opening; this story is part of the climax of the film, and emphasized how unknown important stories of Philadelphia’s history are not necessarily widely known.

Remembering Resistance, Chronicling Community Recap

Thirteen people braved the cold to participate in “Remembering Resistance, Chronicling Community” at Girard College on the evening of January 31. The event was held in connection with the 50th anniversary of the desegregation of Girard College. Attendees were able to tour the historic spaces of Girard’s main building and see artifacts from its history, including materials related to desegregation.

Afterwards, attendees enjoyed dinner and participated in story circles in small groups. Everyone had been invited to bring an object, image, or other material as a way of sharing a brief story of their own experience with resistance. Some attendees shared experiences about acts of resistance they had participated in, such as the protests to integrate Girard College or exposing the history of environmental racism and health threats in their neighborhood through research and blogging. Others in attendance talked about other people in their families who demonstrated resistance and how that inspires the work they do now. Attendees also responded to the resistance stories they heard.

Themes which emerged from the circles and conversations included:

  • Mothers as models of resistance
  • How civil rights era assassinations catalyzed individuals
  • How easy it is for stories to be lost
  • The desire for stories to be passed down
  • How resistance can be inspired by the acts of others.

Sites of Resistance: White Clay Creek

 


By Timothy Murray

Black background, burnt sienna lettering reading, "SAVE WHITE CLAY CREEK DON'T DAM IT!"
Bumper sticker produced for the campaign to save the White Clay Creek Preserve

In the 1950s, the DuPont Company, concerned about water supply issues in New Castle County, began looking for alternative solutions to supply water for its Newport and Edge Moor Plants. DuPont did a study concerning the feasibility of a reservoir on the White Clay Creek and began to encourage local governments to plan for it and build it. In 1956, DuPont purchased the Pennsylvania Railroad Company’s land, as well as other properties along the creek in order to prevent residential development from interfering with these plans. The White Clay Creek Dam, located at Wedgewood Road in Newark, would have flooded 1,160 acres and supplied 71 million gallons of water a day. In 1984, when DuPont realized the reservoir plans would never come to fruition, and at the suggestion of the National Park Services, the company donated land to the states of Delaware and Pennsylvania to establish a joint park: White Clay Creek Preserve.

Dorothy Miller (center) hiking with friends in the White Clay Creek Preserve

Dorothy Miller (1931-2016) was a principal actor in thwarting DuPont’s plans. Miller was born in Windber, Pennsylvania in 1931 and received her BS in chemistry from Pennsylvania State University before going on to be an analytical chemist at DuPont. While employed at DuPont, she became vocal against the company’s acquisition of White Clay Creek land for the intent of building a dam. An avid birder, Miller used her love and knowledge of the area’s flora and fauna and consolidated the field notes of a number of Delawarean naturaliststo produce a report detailing the proposed dam’s effect on wildlife. Miller believed that the best way to protect water resourceswas by protecting the land around them. It was this belief that influenced her civic involvement in water resource management and other development projects.

Miller joined forces withDon Sharpe of the United Auto Workers and Dennis Neuzil of the Delaware Sierra Club, as well as 22 other organizations to fight to preserve White Clay Creek. Miller also served as a leader in new umbrella organizations, the Coalition for Natural Stream Valleys and the Citizens for White Clay Creek, and was an active member in several of the other groups.

In 1988, the heirs of S. Hallock du Pont announced plans to sell off 850 of the family’s 2,000 acre estate, which had been held in trust for future generations. Seeking to limit the loss of open space, Governor Michael Castle began the purchase of 321 acres of the land which would connect Walter Carpenter State Park and the White Clay Creek Preserve to the Middle Run Valley Natural Area, a New Castle County-run park. The purchase was completed in the early 1990s, and in 1995, Walter S. Carpenter, Jr. State Park, the Delaware portion of the White Clay Creek Preserve, and the du Pont estate lands were joined together and renamed White Clay Creek State Park.

In 2000, Congress designated the entirety of White Clay Creek watershed as a national Wild and Scenic River, making it the first complete watershed in the nation to receive that designation.

Miller passed away in 2016 at the age of 84.

Uncovering Women of Color in Time, Place, and History Recap

From left: Karina Puente, Mariam Williams, Rasheedah Phillips, Yolanda Wisher. Photo courtesy Rasheedah Phillips.

The session “Uncovering Women of Color in Time, Place, and History” was held December 12, 2018, at the Education Center of Uncle Bobbie’s Books and Café. 44 people attended a discussion with Rasheedah Phillips (Managing Attorney of the Landlord-Tenant Housing Unit at Community Legal Services of Philadelphia, Black Quantum Futurism Collective), Yolanda Wisher (poet, singer, educator, curator), and Karina Puente (artist).

In a wide-ranging discussion, Phillips, Wisher, and Puente reflected on questions including the definition of resistance, how resistance is part of the work they do, the kinds of historical stories they include, and what it means to center women of color in their work.

All the panelists emphasized the inspiration which they find in history and historical narratives. Wisher and Phillips both emphasized how hidden some of these stories are — for instance, Ona Judge, about whom there is only one book, and Rev. Leon Sullivan, whose story is not known in much of Philadelphia. Puente spoke about the importance of anchoring her work in a Latin American folk art tradition of papel picado (cut paper), and the history of that work.

Phillips and Wisher discussed differing experiences of historical research. Phillips is a Temple graduate and while she had heard of the Blockson Collection while she was a student, she didn’t know it what it was or how to access it. (The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection is an archive with more than 500,000 items pertaining to the global black experience.) Phillips’ perception at Temple was that the Blockson Collection was a resource that wasn’t really available to her. Wisher described her first visit to the Schomburg Center as a pilgrimage, and the importance for her of doing at least some research in a physical space.

Much of the work of all the panelists combines the past, present, and future. Puente views her work in a traditional folk art medium as a way of conjuring the past and connecting to others who do or did similar work. Her current project, “#SisterlyHistory,” which is co-producing with Wisher, is designed to help women of color engaged in arts, cultural organizing, or entrepreneurship remember why they are doing it. Wisher talked about using her family stories in her work, and how the future in her work is in many ways about the past, as well. Phillips exhorted attendees to stop thinking of time as linear and progressive but to explore quantum physics, which sees time as moving in many directions, an idea which resonates with precolonial African practices. She also challenged attendees to question what values spur the desire to document (in writing), preserve, and institutionalize history. Are these values Eurocentric and capitalist? History among many precolonial indigenous populations was oral and was passed down; could archives be passed down the same way?

Phillips discussed her work in Sharswood, a community in North Philly, which is undergoing rapid gentrification, and where the city demolished low-income housing using eminent domain. She had represented people as part of her work as attorney, but also felt compelled to do more. To bring an Afrofuturist lens to the work, she opened up a pop-up store front, and did oral-futurist interviews, sign making, and art. This was designed to push back against the narrative coming from the city and others about the neighborhood, and allow those living there to tell their story of their community.

All emphasized the centrality of women of color in their work, and that they do not see this as a choice.

Following the discussion, audience members filled out response cards. Then there was a question and comment session with attendees. Elements of the discussion included how to stay community focused, that the process of looking for a story is also a story, the importance of community control over both collections and where they are, and the contrast between the often metaphysical process of the creation of art and the order and process of archives. Wisher suggested art within the archives could be a bridge between the different processes, as art and artifacts connect with ancestry and add an element of the living within the institutional space.

Ladies Resist, Counter-resist, and Complicate

Editor’s Note: How will women vote? The question has been on the minds of politicians and pundits since before the ratification of the nineteenth amendment. Women’s potential votes carried power on major questions such as citizenship, the rights of enslaved (and later, formerly-enslaved) blacks, and temperance. The country could change in women’s hands.

But women — including white women, the focus of much polling and hand-wringing this midterm season — have never been a monolith. If women today who believed Dr. Christine Blasey Ford allegations of attempted sexual assault against now Justice Brett Kavanaugh had lived in the 1800s, they would have found ample support for their resistance to the status quo. So would women who now want to protect men against false allegations or who offer other challenges to what many people see as progress.

In the latter group–at least, sort of–was Sarah Josepha Hale, who used her editorial position at the magazine, Godey’s Lady Book, to speak against suffrage and to take other controversial stances. The Athenaeum of Philadelphia houses a file of Hale’s correspondence, along with one of the country’s most complete collections of Godey’s Lady’s Book.Below, Peter Conn, Executive Director of the Athenaeum, offers more about Hale and her print media as a tool of resistance.


Sarah Josepha Hale

By Peter Conn

Little known today, Sarah Josepha Hale (1788–1879) could claim several significant accomplishments in her long and eventful life. She played a major role in the completion of the Bunker Hill Monument and the preservation of George Washington’s home, Mount Vernon. She lobbied successfully for the establishment of Thanksgiving as a national holiday (Abraham Lincoln issued the requisite proclamation).

Her second volume of poetry, Poems for Our Children(1830) included one of the most familiar bits of verse in the English language, “Mary Had a Little Lamb,” originally called “Mary’s Lamb.” (In 1877 Thomas Edison recited the opening lines of “Mary’s Lamb” as the first speech to be recorded on his newly invented phonograph.)Hale was also the author of several novels, to a couple of which I will return.

However, it was Hale’s forty-year tenure as the editor of Godey’s Lady’s Book, beginning in 1837, that placed her among the most influential women of her time. The magazine’s circulation reached 160,000 by 1860, making it the most widely circulated women’s journal of the nineteenth century. Along with poetry and short stories, and advice on child rearing and home furnishing, the magazine’s attractions included beautifully colored illustrations of current female fashions.

Courtesy The Atheneum of Philadelphia

The essays that she wrote for the magazine, along with the work that she commissioned and published, reveal a complex and indeed divided set of political and cultural commitments.

On the one hand, through her own professional accomplishment – a widowed mother of five children supervising every detail of a major magazine – Hale exemplified a high level of independent financial and managerial skill. And in her essays and speeches, she argued strenuously in favor of expanding educational opportunities for girls and women. She also wrote in favor of conferring property rights on married women, the subject of vigorous and sometimes rancorous debate through much of the nineteenth century.

On the other hand, Hale argued with equal energy against female suffrage and embraced a quite traditional role for women: as homemakers and as fit mothers of future American patriots. In her view, “to induce women to think they have a just right to participate in the public duties of government [would be] injurious to their best interests and derogatory to their character.”

Courtesy The Athenaeum of Philadelphia

A similar division marked Hale’s attitude toward slavery. Her first novel, Northwood; A Tale of New England (1827), contained among its subjects one of the earliest representations of slavery in American fiction. However, while she called slavery “a stain on our national character,” she opposed abolition, instead supporting the relocation of the nation’s slaves to Liberia. She endorsed the work of the Ladies Liberia School Association, which raised money to found schools and underwrite teachers in that country. And her novel, Liberia, takes as its theme “the advantages Liberia offers to the African, who among us has no home, no position, and no future.”

In short, in the landscape of nineteenth century resistance, on the great issues of women’s rights and slavery, Hale is to be found in divergent and often contrary locations: opposing both slavery and abolition, supporting both women’s education and a traditional commitment to women’s domestic roles.