Monday, June 27, 2016

Library Company at PAFA: African Methodist Episcopal Church Exhibition

The tragic events at Mother Emmanuel AME Church in Charleston, South Carolina last June – when a racist gunman killed nine people gathered in this fabled institution -- had special resonance in Philadelphia. The African Methodist Episcopal Church was founded in the City of Brotherly Love in May 1816 by Rev. Richard Allen and dozens of other black Methodists who believed firmly in both religious liberty and racial equality. Soon after, Philadelphia’s Mother Bethel (formally founded in 1794) welcomed a delegation of black Charlestonians, including Morris Brown (who would eventually flee South Carolina in the wake of Denmark Vesey’s slave rebellion and settle here, where he eventually became a Bishop in the AME Church).

Two centuries later, AME followers from across the country and around the world gathered in Philadelphia to celebrate Allen’s founding vision of true equality and justice for all. In February, the AME Bicentennial at Mother Bethel AME Church at Sixth and Lombard Streets paid homage not only to Allen but to generations of “Freedom’s Prophets” who struggled to overcome slavery and racial injustice. The echoes of the Charleston tragedy were loud and clear. On the exact same ground where Richard Allen took a bold stand for liberty in the 18th century, speaker after speaker called for a new civil rights movement in the 21st century to vanquish any lasting legacies of racism.

Playbill depicting the Rev. David S.
Cincore as Othello (1901)
Featured in PAFA's "An Extraordinary History"
The Library Company has had a long and interesting relationship with Allen, both the historical person and the revered icon. Though not a shareholder, Allen himself donated a copy of his Yellow Fever pamphlet, “A Narrative of the Black People During the Late Awful Calamity,” to us in 1794. Over time, LCP acquired many images of Allen, including two executed during his lifetime; we also recently acquired a set of books from Allen’s own library (Josephus’ writings on Christianity’s roots). And just this year, the Library Company played a key role in the production of the Richard Allen stamp issued by the United States Postal Service (which came from our copy of an 1876 engraving, “Bishops of the AME Church,” featuring Allen).

Now the Library Company will be a key player in a wonderful summer exhibition at the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts. Entitled “An Extraordinary History, An Incredible Future: 200 Years of Service,” the exhibition runs from July 1 through July 17th. As one might expect, the show is a key part of the AME’s Bicentennial celebration. With 200 artifacts, documents, and digitized images from the Church’s illustrious history, the exhibition illuminates two centuries of accomplishment and struggle. Notably, 14 rare books, pamphlets, prints, and pieces of ephemera come from the Library Company’s African Americana Collection. Among the LCP treasures are images of AME bishops from the late 19th century, AME conference minutes from Ohio during the Civil War – including the church’s salute to Abraham Lincoln for issuing the Emancipation Proclamation – and a playbill from a turn-of-the-century production of Othello featuring AME pastor David S. Cincore. Movingly, given recent events, there is also a copy of the 1889 South Carolina AME conference report on the struggles of black Methodists in the Deep South.

It’s quite a display. Florcy Morriset, a museum consultant with Mother Bethel Church who curated the exhibit, was thrilled to visit the Library Company and learn about our holdings in AME history. “The pamphlets and prints that I saw were truly a treasure,” she wrote us after her tour of the archives. After viewing the 1823 engraving of Raphaelle Peale’s magnificent painting of Allen, she noted that the image symbolized for her “the sheer beauty, legacy and historical significance of the AME Church.” It “left me proud and blown away.”

Though varied by time and topic, the Library Company’s materials illustrate the many ways the AME Church has struggled for freedom in the past two centuries. In a founding city like Philadelphia, that is an incredible story that must be told again and again. Indeed, it is reassuring to know that this story is deeply embedded not only in Mother Emanuel and Mother Bethel churches but also Ben Franklin’s Library Company.

 (Visit for Admission Fees and Hours)

Location: Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts, 128 N. Broad St., Phila., PA

Dr. Richard Newman
Director, Library Company of Philadelphia 

A Scholar’s View From Inside LCP: The Woman in White

Who is the woman in white?  

It is the year 1800 and she is walking down High Street near the Presbyterian Church.  Alone, she is reading a sheet of paper.  More telling is the side-ward glance of another woman with a parasol.  Is there some scandal behind that woman’s look?  The woman in white appears again, hands gently placed in a muff as she enters Second Street just off Market Street.  We are left to wonder what the market women on the other side of the street are gossiping about.  The woman in white is not always a solitary figure.  There she is, walking in front of the unfinished mansion of Robert Morris.  This time she is with a male escort and another woman.  Just who is this woman in white?

Historians need an imagination.  We can read sources and study prints, but ultimately we must imagine the past.  Sometimes, after many bleary hours in the archives our imaginations stretch too far and we begin to make connections we cannot support with a footnote.  When we publish our books and articles we need to rein in our most extravagant imagining.  Still, there are times when we see something that is too good to be true.  The woman in white is one such moment. 
High Street, with the First Presbyterian Church. Philadelphia 1800
William Birch's "Views of Philadelphia"
The Woman in White can be seen in the lower right corner
This mysterious woman appears in the greatest collection of early Philadelphia prints by William Birch.  The Library Company has a special set of these prints and it is here where I discovered the woman in white (while working on a new history of the Election of 1800).  Most of Birch’s prints do not have many people in them – certainly they do not represent the crowded city streets of a compact city.  But Birch did include many well-dressed men, some African Americans, and women.  A few prints show workingmen.  Among these often scattered figures, I suddenly noticed a tall young female figure dressed in white.  She certainly was not a poor woman.  Who was she? 

As I pondered this question, she appeared again with her back turned from the artist and riding in an open carriage with a man beside her.  Her location is what set my head spinning.  The carriage was in front of the house of the richest and most powerful man in the early American republic – William Bingham.  And with their backs turned away from us, the couple seemed to be escaping from the scene.  The Binghams stood at the apex of Philadelphia society.  William was a senator and his parlor, hosted by his wife Anne Willing, was the inner sanctum of the American elite.  Their fifteen-year old daughter, Maria Matilda Bingham, eloped with an impoverished French aristocrat and the scandal became the talk of the town.  The Binghams “rescued” their daughter from her gold digger husband and in January 1800 William Bingham used his political clout to obtain an annulment by special legislation supported by both Federalists and Republicans.  

Knowing this background, and knowing the sensation created by Maria’s indiscretion –– the woman in white had to be (or so my imagination tells me)  the scandalous daughter of William and Anne Willing Bingham.
Paul A. Gilje

Paul Gilje is the George Lynn Cross Research Professor at the University of Oklahoma and a past president of the Society for Historians of the Early American Republic (SHEAR). He is the author of several important books on early America, including Liberty on the Waterfront and To Swear Like a Sailor. He is currently at the Library Company to research his new book on the Election of 1800.   

Digital News:GLAM Café and Digital Paxton

The Library Company has ramped up its digital programming during the last two years. As a hub of Digital Humanities projects, LCP supports digital outreach through a variety of regional educational programs and events. One of the more popular events is the PhillyDH GLAM Café Meet-Up. GLAM Café, as it is known, provides networking opportunities to digital managers and digital support staff at Philadelphia area institutions. Our own DH manager Nicole Scalessa facilitated LCP’s partnership with the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, and the Chemical Heritage Foundation, which allowed the Library Company to serve as one of four institutional hosts for this monthly meetup of digital humanists from Philadelphia area galleries, libraries, archives, and museums. This year LCP hosted GLAM Cafe in the Cassatt House on the second Tuesday of April, May, and June.

GLAM Café serves as an incubator of ideas and projects in the Digital Humanities (a fashionable term that refers to the merging of digital technologies and humanities research interests). In April, the Library Company kicked off the spring meetings with a guest speaker who introduced a new software platform with DH possibilities for museums and archives. Professor Will Fenton, who teaches at Fordham University (, discussed the Scalar platform he is using for the new Digital Paxton project, which flows from partnerships with both the Library Company and the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.

Digital professionals gather for a PhillyDH GLAM Cafe Meet-up
You may be wondering: “What is the Digital Paxton?” According to Fenton, it is a new way to understand the meaning of Native-Colonial relations in Pennsylvania before the American Revolution. By compiling and digitizing original pamphlets, maps and historical essays, Digital Paxton will allow scholars, educators and students to re-examine a famous instance of borderlands violence in Pennsylvania (the so-called Paxton Boys Rebellion) through an interactive website. The Paxton Boys were a group of Scots-Irish Presbyterians who, angered by what they saw as Native incursions, attacked a group of Christianized Indians at Conestoga Manor in 1764. The violence and horror of the attack shocked Native as well as colonial figures. But the Paxton Uprising was no single event; in fact, it led to a series of battles, from a Lancaster jailhouse to the streets of Philadelphia. Benjamin Franklin eventually helped negotiate a settlement with the Paxton leaders. Yet over the next year Paxton critics (including Native Americans) and apologists continued to wage an intense public debate over colonial authority, Native-white relations, and governance in the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania.  

The deeper dimensions of the Paxton saga are illuminated in dozens of pamphlets, political cartoons, and broadsides housed at both LCP and HSP.  But many of these documents are not digitized, which means researchers and teachers unable to get to Philadelphia are missing out on a truly important set of resources on the struggle. The Paxton Massacre, as some scholars have labelled it, illuminates many broader matters, from colonial/Native identity and race relations to the meaning of masculinity and religious association in 18th century America. Thanks to Digital Paxton, anyone interested in these and other topics will have access to a terrific set of resources.

With so much ground to cover – digitizing documents, gathering historical information, getting things in accessible online formats – it was only fitting that we tapped into our competitive summer Digital Humanities internship program for assistance.  LCP hired DH Intern Hunter Johnson, who will be digitizing pamphlets, broadsides, and political cartoons in June. He will also be assisting with the collection and entry of metadata (descriptions of the resources used); transcription of some original documents; and providing research insights on various authors, printers, and pamphlets in the Digital Paxton archive. Supervised by Nicole Scalessa, Digital Humanities Coordinator, and Nicole Joniec, Digital Collections Librarian, Hunter has already proven to be an integral part of the project team.  Building out Will Fenton’s wonderful idea, LCP’s DH team will help bring Digital Paxton to life and make it a compelling and important website for anyone interested in this tragic frontier event.

To learn more about Hunter Johnson's experience at the Library Company this summer read his blog post here

Nicole Scalessa 
Information Technology Manager and Digital Humanities Coordinator

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