Black History Month youth essay contest doubles as way to honor Germantown’s ‘unsung heroes’

Many people who pass the Johnson House on Germantown Avenue are unaware that the historic landmark once served as a stopping point on the Underground Railroad. Cornelia Swinson wants that to change.

“It’s important for people to know the history of the Johnson House, to understand what happened to those families, and those individuals who escaped slavery by coming through this place and this town,” said Swinson, executive director of the Johnson House board.

Spreading the word

As part of Black History Month, and in an effort to spread the word about Germantown’s Underground Railroad ties, the Johnson House hosted a student essay-reading event and honored Germantown’s “Unsung Heroes” event on Sunday.

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Students from area K-8 schools read original essays written around the theme of the 326th anniversary of the 1688 Germantown Quaker Petition Against Slavery, also known as the First Protest Against Slavery.

Nathan Legette, a kindergartner of William Penn Charter School was the youngest student presenter at the event.

Nathan’s mother Imana proudly watched her son declare to the some 40 people in attendance, “I love to learn black history, because all of the people look like me.”

For Imana, the event served as an opportunity for she and her son to learn more about their new home. They recently moved to Philadelphia from Charlotte, NC.

“I’m very proud of him,” she said. “It’s great to see him participate and learn more about black history, and Philly history. … [W]e’re still learning alot about Philadelphia, so it’s great that we get an opportunity to come here and to learn about this history and hear about all of these unsung heroes.”

Past, present and future

According to Johnson House Board President Patricia Bass, the nonprofit hosts a Black History Month event annually, but this is the first time it honored notable members of the Germantown community.

Longtime Germantown business owner Gilbert Fuller, Sr., and chief astronomer and planetarium director for the Franklin Institute Derrick Pitts were honored as “unsung heroes” at the event.

In addition to operating his own Germantown Avenue shoe-shine parlor, Fuller was widely known for his friendly demeanor and entrepreneurial spirit.

Honorarily dubbed the “Mayor of Germantown,” Fuller passed away in 2012. Several of his children accepted the award on his behalf. Fuller’s daughter Michelle was moved to tears by the posthumous presentation.

“Today was a very good moment, very heartfelt,” she said. “He was just such an educated historian and such a giving person, and I just thank them for seeing him as we’ve seen him all our lives — as our hero.”

Pitts, a Germantown Historical Society Hall of Fame inductee and one of Science Spectrum magazine’s “50 Most Important Blacks in Research Science,” was honored for his many accomplishments in the field of astronomy.

He said he appreciated the recognition while noting that he’s drawn to the field “because it’s fun” and necessary.

“I want other people to be as interested in science as I am so they can appreciate what I appreciate about the universe — at least to some degree — because it’s so beautiful and so complex,” he said. “I am really grateful and blessed that I have the opportunity to work in this fabulous field.”

Mission continues

Swinson and Bass said they hope to continue honoring Germantown natives as unsung heroes as a means of connecting the community with its history.

“The unsung heroes is part of our mission to begin to talk about the stories of African-Americans that came through this house,” Bass said. “We thought the two of them represented what this is all about, you know, we’re about civil literacy, and we’re about letting people know about this history.”

Swinson agreed.

“The reason why we say unsung, it’s not that they are not known, but they need to be known even more,” she said. “We need to keep reminding all of us that we have people that have done a lot for our community.

“They’ve done it quietly and consistently, and they’ve gone out of their way to serve others. We commend them, and that’s the reason that we’re honoring them today.”

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