I was pleased to take that walk again myself earlier this month when in Philadelphia for the Society for the Study of American Women Writers (SSAWW) Conference. I couldn’t resist counting my steps--only 49 of them--between the two buildings, both of which have long been converted to private residences.
619’s exterior (below) still reminds of the time when Weaver both lived there (with his small family) and worked to make the Recorder a national presence.
631 has been joined with 633 Pine and extensively remodeled (see below); you can see an earlier photograph here.
SSAWW had me thinking much about journeys tied to print. The conference featured exciting work on African American print--from Barbara McCaskill’s wonderful paper on Emma Ray’s Twice Sold, Twice Ransomed to Nazera Wright’s study of Black girls’ autograph albums, and from Gabrielle Foreman and Sarah Patterson’s work tied to the Colored Conventions Project to rich panels on Black women’s spiritual expression and on Black women’s self-writing (featuring, among others, Joycelyn Moody and Andrea Williams).
Sometimes 49 steps can represent massive change, and even such short journeys can allow us to remember Black presences across the nation.
My sense of how much we continue to learn about early Black print and how much we still have to learn was much on my mind during that walk on a brisk Philadelphia morning and during the moments when I again read the historical marker outside of 631 Pine.
I guess I should be glad that the site is marked at all. So many locations tied to early Black print and to early African American life are lost. They are parking lots and vacant lots, some are luxury hotels, some still stand completely unmarked and unnoticed. There is no marker, for example, at 619 Pine.
But what I keep coming back to is how almost everything on the marker is wrong.
The first sentence is wrong from the first word. Nothing directly related to AME print happened “here” until 1866. I’m still not certain where the 1836 date supposedly marking the Book Concern’s founding came from. The Book Concern had been running for almost two decades at that point; an 1835 AME Church report noted that it had produced a thousand copies of the AME hymnal, a thousand of the discipline, and two thousand of the most recent conference minutes. 1836 actually saw the naming of New Yorker George Hogarth as AME Book Steward--and the moving of the Concern from Philadelphia to New York, where it stayed until 1848. (While there, the Concern produced, among other texts, the early African Methodist Episcopal Church Magazine.)
Even the nuances in this first sentences are wrong. While hymnals were part of the publishing project, the AME Discipline was arguable more important (perhaps this is what’s meant by “religious materials”?) and the conference proceedings, more regular. (You can see the first Discipline here.) Calling the Book Concern a “church related company” elides the fact that the Book Concern was actually an arm of the Church--and that that relationship had massive complexities.
The second sentence fares no better. The 1847 start date for the Recorder does appear in a few sources. But the earliest incarnations of what would become the Recorder actually happened a year later, in 1848, when Augustus Green became Book Steward. The paper he brought out was actually called the Christian Herald, and it would not take its later (and current) name until 1852. And Green published the Herald out of Pittsburgh--not “here” in Philadelphia. Green had settled in Pittsburgh at the Church’s directive and purchased the equipment of The Mystery, a Black newspaper that had earlier been deeply connected to activist Martin Delany. The paper's move to Philadelphia happened in the same year as its name change.
At least the third sentence gets something right amid its errors. Benjamin Tucker Tanner’s time as editor of the Recorder was indeed massively important. But that time didn’t start until 1868--far after the marker’s implication. The erasure of Elisha Weaver--to say nothing of other pre-1868 editors Augustus Green, Molliston Clark, Jabez Pitt Campbell, Anthony Stanford, and James Lynch--is not simply embarrassing, it is amazing. Even the 1884 date on the marker, which is correct in terms of the end of Tanner’s editorship of the Recorder, incorrectly implies through its use of “the firm,” that Tanner was Book Steward for the full time covered by the sign, too. (I also worry that the 1884 end date ignores the fact that Tanner went on to found the AME Church Review, a massively important church magazine.)
I share these details not simply out of a desire to continue our discipline’s corrective work--though it is deeply important that such corrective work expand. In some ways, the marker reminds me of the “integration” of Frederick Douglass’s Narrative and Harriet Jacobs’s Incidents into American lit survey courses, monographs, and dissertations: a token, one little understood and often misunderstood, that stops scholars from doing much further work.
I share these corrections and reflections as part of a continuing demand that we think and then think again about African Americans’ places in the nation’s history and memory.
Part of that work must be tied to considering physical spaces and to using such consideration to much more carefully think about what happened in those spaces and why.
Those were my thoughts when I passed by Mother Bethel, only a few blocks away, later that morning.
It is a beautiful church, with a wonderful museum. I didn’t visit this trip: I had a conference session to get to. But I did stand a moment and drink in the large sign that said “Open” in the church’s entry.
In my head were the words of Bishop Richardson’s litany for the Charleston Nine, reminding folks that “the doors of the church are still open.”
There is much we need to remember, much we need to correct, many places we need to walk again.