History on the Streets

Several seniors participated in a Philadelphia History seminar last spring during the last several weeks of the semester and in lieu of the usual individualized senior projects made much more difficult to plan by the pandemic. By then, things were looking up with respect to vaccination rates, and the Delta variant had not yet begun to make its presence felt. The weather was perfect, not too hot, and there was virtually no precipitation, enabling us to be out and about a couple of days a week.

Our first trip centered on the Wyck House in Germantown. The oldest part of the structure was built in the late 1600s, just a few years after the colony was established. Its earliest owner was a Quaker, and it stayed in the same family until the 1970s. That day, we also visited some of the sites of the Battle of Germantown and two Quaker schools directly across the street from each other, one of which was set up, like Friends’ Central, as a breakaway Hicksite school during the Great (Quaker) Schism in the mid-19th century.

Later outings included visits to the former Institute for Colored Youth, one of the very early private schools for black students in the U.S. Set up by a group of Quakers in 1837. The faculty was composed entirely of African Americans, probably a first. Stops were also made at Washington Square, The Philadelphia Athenaeum, and the site of the home of James Forten, an African American who fought in the War for Independence and went on to become a prominent business owner and abolitionist. Early German arrivals to the colony brought their beer-making traditions, and brewing has been an important industry in the city since its founding. We discussed its history and visited a new brewery recently built in an old 19th century industrial building next to the Wayne Junction train station. The latter was one of the busiest in the country at the turn of the 20th century. Passengers could embark on trains bound for cities up and down the East Coast and west all the way to California.

The seniors gave presentations on the histories of a number of the universities and colleges that make their homes in Philadelphia and highlighted ways in which these institutions have both reflected and contributed to the history of the city.

Students read and discussed First City, a work about the making of the history of Philadelphia and also read A Short History of Philadelphia from its Foundation to the Present Time, both a history and an historical document published in 1887. We also enjoyed a live Zoom tour of the main building at Girard College.

Several members of the wider Friends’ Central community generously contributed their time and expertise to the seminar.

Nelson Hammond, longtime security staffer and former FCS parent, hosted our visit to the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where he also works. The major renovation of the west entrance had just been completed, and we were wowed by the beautiful spaces and the natural light that filled them.

At the Philadelphia Museum of Art with Nelson Hammond

Jon Grinspan ’02, historian, curator at the Smithsonian in Washington, D.C. and author of a new book, The Age of Acrimony: How Americans Fought to Fix Their Democracy, 1865-1915, met with us via Zoom and talked about William Kelley, a Philadelphian who represented the city in the U.S. Congress from 1861-1890. He is a central figure in Grinspan’s latest work.

Steve Chawaga, husband of faculty member Laurie Novo and past parent, met us at the Laurel Hill Cemetery (est. 1836) in East Falls and gave us a wonderful tour of what was only the second major garden cemetery in the United States and whose internees are a who’s who of Philadelphia history.

The seminar was full of reminders of the degree to which we are surrounded by our local history, most of the time unconsciously. As one student noted on our first trip to Germantown, “It’s almost overwhelming that such pivotal events occurred along School House Lane and that [soldiers of the Continental Army camped on the fields the day before the Battle of Germantown] where I run and play baseball in Friends League meets and games. I’m becoming more appreciative of my upbringing near Philadelphia.” 

Friends’ Central, whose first 80 years were spent at 4th and Cherry in what is now “Old City,” is very much an integral part of Philadelphia’s rich history, and we should take more opportunities to venture out into the city.

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