Wilmot School Nominated as a Historic Treasure

 

Joe Menkevich and Leon Brantley cosponsored the nomination of the Wilmot school (Meadow and Mulberry Streets) for Historic designation by the Historical Commission of the City of Philadelphia.  It passed the first hurdle by being recommended by the sub committee for acceptance on March 17th.  It will go up to the full Commission for consideration soon.

Thanks to Pastor Darrell Bradsberry of Second Baptist, owner of the building for his support.  Also thanks to Councilwoman Sanchez and Representative Jason Dawkins for letters of support.  Debbie Klak, former president of the Historical Society of Frankford attended the meeting in support as well.

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Pastor Bradsberry, Menkevich, Klak and Brantley after the meeting.

The following, By Joe Menkevich and Bob Smiley, is extracted from the 80 plus pages of documentation that supported the nomination.  You can read the full nomination at this link.

In the beginning

In 1840, Frankford was being transformed from a small country village to an industrial center.  George Lockwood went door to door collecting money to build a school.  The Borough of Frankford supplied the land by leasing part of the the public burial ground at Meadow and Mulberry Streets to them.  James C. Watson, Samuel Morris, William Chase Jr. Jeremiah Young and William Taylor were named trustees and soon a wood frame, one room schoolhouse rose on the site.

In the following years, we have some documentation of how the school progressed.  William Coffee was the teacher in 1844 at an annual salary of $250 and at that time there were 33 boys and 15 girls enrolled.

In 1854, Frankford became part of the City of Philadelphia and the school building became City property. The record shows Mr. Coffee was still teaching and in 1855 there was an enrollment of 26 boys and 14 girls.  

Twelve years later in 1862, John H. Davis had taken over as teacher and was earning $480 per year.  Enrollment by then had increased to 41 boys and 28 girls.

There is a record that in 1872 the school was offering night classes to Black men and women.  There were 77 students enrolled.  Mr. Davis was in charge.  Some student names from the neighborhood during that time:  

Margaret Emery, Sarah Buchanon, Jane Trusty, James Allen, Randal Pleasants, George Pleasants, Letitia Bedford. Hannah Somers, Lizzie Barrete, Mary Barrete, William Chippy, Mary Chippy, William Chase, Mary Chase, Patience Johnson, William Benson, Joseph, Henry and William Plater,

The Wilmot School

By 1874, it was time to replace the structure and the main part of the Wilmot School building that we see today was built.  It took its name from Pennsylvania Congressman David Wilmot.  This building has been nominated for placement on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.   

In 1885 “The Wilmot (Colored)” school had enrolled 69 boys and 77 Girls.  It was said to be “well arranged” and was heated by stoves but the cellar was wet from every rain.

By August of 1895 the school building had become the property of the Philadelphia School Board when it had to be closed for a period of time.  It was found to be settling at the corner.  Upon investigation, it was disclosed to be resting on the remains of coffins from the burial ground.  It became clear that the dead had never been removed and the building was built over them.  Repairs were made and the building reopened.

Controversy arose in 1902 when the Black residents of Frankford claimed that the Wilmot school was uninhabitable and petitioned that the schools of Frankford should be integrated and open to all races.  Their petition was denied by the School Board.

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Wilmot School today

Overcrowding at Wilmot became an issue in 1908 which caused them to rent the basement of the Second Baptist church for use as an annex, an addition to the Wilmot School building was approved by the School Board and it was erected at a cost was $15,573.

In 1929 the school was abandoned by the School Board and the students were then admitted to the local Frankford public Schools.  However, the schools remained segregated. That chapter of Frankford came to an end.

In June of 1944, the School Board sold the Wilmot School building to the John M. Marquess Lodge No.1017 I.B.P.O.E of W. of Frankford (the Elks).  Finally, in June of 1957 the Elks sold the building to the Second Baptist Church of Frankford.  

Notables connected to the Wilmot School

Eugenia Marks, who was elected to be the janitress of the school in 1873 was born into slavery in 1802, as one of Thomas Jefferson’s slaves.  She was a waiting maid at Monticello and as a result had waited upon many distinguished visitors. She was present at the death of Jefferson and heard his last words.  When he died she was left a slave.

She left Monticello for Washington D.C. to serve as a slave to Mrs. Randolph, Jefferson’s married daughter. There she met and married Peter Marks who had been the body servant to President James Monroe but was then living at the U.S. Arsenal at Washington D.C. with Major Albert Mordecai.

Peter Marks purchased his wife’s freedom with a $250 loan from Major Mordecai. The Major was eventually transferred to the U.S. Arsenal in Frankford. Peter and Eugenia Marks came with him to the Arsenal and permanently settled in the Frankford.  She died at her home on Brown Street in about 1885.  

Her name also appeared in the Christian Recorder among the many contributors who funded the construction of a new church building for the Campbell A.M.E. Church on Kinsey Street.  

Mrs. Mary S. Chase Beckett was the daughter of Elias and Malvina Chase and was born in Holmesburg. They moved to Frankford where there were better school facilities.  She graduating from the Wilmot Public School and entered Robert Vaux School, 12th and Wood streets. She went on to marry the Rev. John Wesley Beckett, D.D., a widower and son-in-law of Bishop Jabez P. Campbell (Campbell AME Church namesake).  She also served without salary, as the corresponding secretary of “The Woman’s Parent Mite Missionary Society.” She wrote ten thousand letters, which inspired twenty two thousand women.

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Mary S. Chase Beckett

Gertrude E. H. Bustill (1855-1948) served as assistant principal of the Wilmot school.  She came from a family of luminaries. She was a distinguished journalist, schoolteacher, woman’s rights advocate and author. She married Nathan Francis Mossell (1856-1946), the first African-American graduate of the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine. He established the Frederick Douglass Hospital. His younger brother, Aaron Albert Mossell would be the first African American to graduate from Penn’s Law School. Aaron’s daughter, Sadie Tanner Mossell Alexander was the second African-American woman to receive a Ph.D. in the United States, and the first woman to receive a law degree from the University of Pennsylvania Law School. She was the first African-American woman to practice law in Pennsylvania.

Miss Caroline R. LeCount was one of Philadelphia’s Black Elite.  She tested the 1867 law desegregating Philadelphia’s trolleys.  The law won through William Still’s crusade.  For nearly fifty years, LeCount worked at the Ohio Street School. During this time, she was also a leading advocate of African American teachers in the city. In August 1891, when the city was looking for a new principal for the Wilmot Colored School in Frankford she led the push for a black man to take the position.

George E. (Butch) Ballard was born in 1918. The first five months of his life were spent in Camden, New Jersey but his parents, Asbury, and Mrs. Ada Ballard, both decided to move to Frankford. For most of his childhood and teenage years, he lived at 4016 Hawthorne Street in Frankford. He went to many different schools in the area but first enrolled at Wilmot Elementary School.  When it closed in 1929 he then went to Henry S. Disston Elementary School, Harding Junior High School and Northeast High School. In eleventh grade he quit school to play drums in a local jazz band and went on to become a world renowned drummer playing with Count Basie and Duke Ellington and numerous other great jazz musicians.
Hundreds more boys and girls who grew up to become the men and women of Frankford.  The families they raised became the parents of the leaders in today’s Frankford.