"Ordinary People, Extraordinary Impact" Sharing Stories That Matter
The Belmont Mansion Underground Railroad Museum (Philadelphia) was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places, June 26, 1956. The site continued to be used for public entertaining until it became a historic house museum under the management of the American Women’s Heritage Society (AWHS), founded by the late Audrey R. Johnson-Thornton in 1986.
Most Philadelphia residents are very familiar with the Belmont Plateau, which has been paid homage to lyrically by hometown icon, Will Smith. However, when you hear the phrase, “meet me at The Belmont,” of course, they are referencing the historic Belmont Mansion URM, known as the “Crown Jewel of Fairmount Park.” Many of The Divine 9 organizations are either members of the Belmont Mansion or have hosted their meetings or soirees at the site. The Belmont Mansion has been recognized as a beautiful venue that has hosted parties, weddings with a covered gazebo on the grounds, political candidate forums, DJ Long John & Gary O’s Black & White Party, and the Inaugural Legends Business Gala hosted by The Mentor Mogul herself, Tanya T. Morris.
As we reflect on the foresight of Tanya T. Morris, to host an event at the Belmont Mansion last year that honored women entrepreneurs, little did we know that the Underground Railroad Museum’s history tour prominently features the legacy of Cornelia Wells. Cornelia was a shrewd businesswoman and entrepreneur, who earned her freedom from slavery from Judge Richard Peters about two-hundred years ago, while working at the Belmont Mansion. This Black museum highlights the spirit of Cornelia Wells, who exemplified that she did not only leave a legacy of freedom to her daughter, but also to future businesswomen for generations to follow. Cornelia settled in a cottage by the river that is still located in Fairmount Park and it is called The Boelson Cottage. If you were to trace Cornelia’s steps today from the Belmont Mansion to her Boelson Cottage residence, it would be about a 20-minute walk, nestled adjacent to the Belmont Stables/Bill Pickett Riding Academy.
The URM, currently under the leadership of Director/Curator, Janice Sykes-Ross, creatively through oral history and video presentation educates the museum’s visitors, supporters, patrons, and members, about the rich heritage of the Underground Railroad, the Peters’ family and how they intentionally offered their Belmont Mansion estate as a major stop on the Underground Railroad in the Philadelphia region. In the motion picture Harriet, the abolition of William Still is revealed. The life of William Still, a black freed man, who frequented the Belmont Mansion, is depicted as one of the conductors of the Underground Railroad in the museum tour by the knowledgeable griots and youth docents. As a part of the URM’s programming, during this past Black History Month 2020, the museum partnered with other local Black museums. The URM presented an interactive historical tour, from Africa to Slavery to Freedom, in collaboration with G.S. Enterprises Nubian World Performances and The Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery. Consequently, during the celebration of the AWHS 35th Anniversary Gala hosted at the Belmont Mansion last year, Curator Janice Sykes-Ross summed up the URM’s vision succinctly, when she told the supporters, “we are not just a party or a great view on the hill, we are a museum that tells our story and tells our history.”
In addition, the URM has hosted many college tours, and sometimes they have not been scheduled. In December of 2019, The Voices of Bowling Green Choir traveled from Bowling Green, OH by chartered bus to Philadelphia to perform, serve and bond throughout the city on their holiday break. After they arrived in the city, one of the Bowling Green State University (BGSU) group leaders googled the Belmont Mansion Underground Railroad Museum and late that Saturday afternoon, this group of about fifty choir members descended upon the grounds unexpectedly. Although, the visit was unscheduled, these college students were greeted warmly by the URM staff, who accommodated their request to tour the museum. This BGSU chorus of primarily African American students were in awe of the cultural history lesson shared from the video presentation, narrated by Alfre Woodard, the oral history facilitated inside the museum by the URM staff, the period clothing, artifacts, and detailed interior architecture preserved for several centuries. Yes, they took plenty of selfies and group photos of the Philadelphia skyline from the grounds as a memento.
Philadelphia Legacy Media was honored to interview the late Audrey R. Johnson-Thornton in November of 2018, a few months before she transitioned. During that interview, we were surprised with a visit from some of Mrs. Audrey’s family that traveled to visit her for the Thanksgiving holiday and were able to interview four generations of strong Black women that embodied the spirit of Cornelia Wells: Mrs. Audrey; her daughter, Dr. Naomi Johnson-Booker; and Mrs. Audrey’s daughter, Linda Thomas, and Linda’s daughter, Nicole and granddaughter, Hampton. Mrs. Audrey, AWHS founder, curator, and civil rights leader was not only the driving force to complete the renovation of the Belmont Mansion, but also led many black women’s service organizations throughout her life.
#ALegacyofFreedom #BlackMuseumsMatter #BlackHistoryMatters
Video courtesy of Mark Allen and Belmont Mansion