Taking issue with Save-A-Lot’s ‘Notable Residents of Historic Germantown’ display

    On a visit to the new Chelten Plaza Save-A-Lot in Germantown, I was shocked to see a gigantic wall mural depicting “Notable Residents of Historic Germantown” looming over the check-out aisles. I couldn’t believe my eyes.

    I asked a cashier whose bright idea it was to put a lily white representation of Germantown history, including two icons of slavery, on the wall in a predominantly black, inner-city neighborhood?

    News of the grand-opening had vaguely mentioned that “a wall display by the check-out aisles speaks to Germantown’s history.” I couldn’t agree more.

    A skewed history

    This mural speaks to the fact that, until very recently, non-whites have been largely missing from the treatment of Germantown’s history.

    It is astounding to think that no one involved with this project could think of at least one “notable” African American to depict on this permanent mural.

    For instance, African American businessman and philanthropist John Trower (1849-1911) moved to Germantown in 1870. He saved enough of his earnings from shucking oysters to buy the former Germantown Savings Fund building at 5706 Germantown Ave. and converted it into a first-class catering establishment.

    Two of the mural’s “notable residents” are further distinguished by the fact that their former “property” named Harry Washington, Daniel Payne (who escaped from Gen. George Washington), Jacob Bummel and Will (who both escaped from Benjamin Chew) fought on the side of the British.

    As if by providence, documents have been uncovered at Cliveden — estate of Benjamin Chew, Chief Justice of Pennsylvania, and site of the 1777 Battle of Germantown — which show that 400 enslaved Africans resided on Chew family estates in Philadelphia, and on a total of nine plantations in Delaware, Maryland and Virginia.

    One of those enslaved by Chew, Richard Allen, purchased his freedom from a subsequent owner and founded, along with Absalom Jones, The Free African Society.

    Allen and Jones were pressed into service to care for the sick and dispose of the dead during the yellow fever epidemic in 1793. Allen would later found Mother Bethel AME Church and become its first bishop.

    Preserving memories

    Historical images and records of black struggle and accomplishment languish in the archives of our historical institutions, or in the basements of Germantown mansions, and seldom see the light of day.

    Certainly, Historic Germantown understands the importance of preserving memory in a community.

    It thrives on its reputation as “Freedom’s Backyard.” This is thanks, in part, to the oft-cited 1688 Germantown Protest against slavery, the 1780 Gradual Abolition Act of Pennsylvania and the exaggerated zeal of Quaker abolitionists.

    But rarely are blacks shown as agents in their own liberation and uplift.

    The display could do good

    A mural on the wall in the supermarket is actually a great idea.

    It could be an opportunity to engage in meaningful community outreach and education by making efforts to bring to light a neglected historical record.

    Ground excavations and airing out of archival materials in the 20th century have revealed some remarkable information about African Africans in early Philadelphia.

    Fortunately, in response to demands from the community and of the times, the “traditional historical community” is beginning to explore ways to expand the memory infrastructure to include examination of the lives of all Germantown’s residents. Recent examples from Philadelphia include: Cliveden Scholar Project, the Johnson House, Queen Lane African Burial Ground, and the President’s House and Slavery Memorial.

    Denise Valentine is a resident of Northwest Philadelphia. For more of her take on the issue, visit her blog post “Food For Thought.”

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