Surrounded by rare portraits, framed poems and first-edition books featuring prominent African Americans from the Harlem Renaissance era, Jahmani Draper learned a lot more about his ancestral history this weekend. In doing so, he gained a new view of Germantown and of himself.
“A friend of mine told me to come by. He’s an older gentleman, and he’s really into his roots and where he came from. I feel like he wanted me to learn the same,” Draper said Saturday. “From the moment I stepped in the door, I really learned a lot.”
The 24 year-old Germantown resident was among a steady stream of visitors who passed through the grand re-opening of the Black Writers Museum, which recently relocated from its former Maplewood Mall location to the historic Vernon House, 5622 Germantown Ave. in Vernon Park.
“It’s crazy because I’ve been living here since 2008 and I’ve seen this building a lot of times, but I never once even thought twice to even step towards it or come in and see it,” Draper said. “So, it’s been a pleasure to try it and I’m glad I got the experience to come here and see everything that I’ve seen — to see this place differently, you know. I learned a lot about myself today.”
Draper’s reaction is exactly for what museum director Supreme Dow had hoped.
Dow said that he was among a group that wanted to provide “a venue — particularly for students — but for tourists as well to come and explore and understand the impact that Black literature has had on American culture.”
It wasn’t easy to go from idea to reality, though.
“This was a long time coming,” Dow said. “We worked really hard to provide something that when folks came in they could learn from, that would generate conversations with the students, with their peers, with their children.”
With a few pieces from his private collection of black literature and artwork, and the help of a few volunteers from the neighborhood, Dow started the Black Writers Museum in 2010.
The new, improved location now houses hundreds of historic items and features a conference room, library and resource center and a forthcoming computer center, all of which will be available to the public.
According to Dow, Delta Sigma Theta sorority members held a book drive that gathered more than 600 books to donate to the museum’s Ida B. Wells Library and Resource Center.
U.S. Rep. Chaka Fattah, City Councilmembers Cindy Bass and Kenyatta Johnson, and the Rev. Alyn E. Waller of the Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church all stopped by this weekend to view the museum’s latest exhibit: “Two Eras Linked in Love, Battle & Literature: Scenes of the Black Arts Movement and the Harlem Renaissance.”
Bass said the museum will play a vital role in ongoing efforts to revitalize Vernon Park.
“This is an area that loves arts and culture, and the Black Writers Museum fits right in,” Bass said. “There’s so much to draw the community in, and I think that when people come in and see what a phenomenal job he’s done with it, they will really be encouraged.
“I can see many events and activities here. It’s really gonna be an anchor for this park that’s been needing an anchor for sometime.”
Dow said he also sees the museum as an opportunity to attract tourists to Germantown. Despite being flooded with history, the neighborhood is often overlooked by visitors.
“This is a museum that will hopefully attract tourism to Philadelphia,” he said. “So, in that, we have to reach out to the Delaware Valley and to the nation and bring them here.”