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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.


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.


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.

mary beckett

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.

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Joe Menkevich to Appear Before the Historical Commission

Joe Menkevich is the ultimate historical researcher  He won’t let you say he is a historian because that implies more than what he does.  What he does is dig through documents files archives and pictures to get at facts.  He has been working on documenting the Byberry African American Cemetery.  This cemetery is an orphan.  It sits unmarked and almost forgotten up on Townsend Road in Northeast Philadelphia near Benjamin Rush State Park.

He will be making his case to have this property included in the city list of historic places at the Historical Commission meeting this Wednesday at 9:30 AM.  You can read his nomination documentation at his link.  This is a public meeting for anyone who would like to attend.

Below is a letter of support from John Buffington which argues why this is important to all of us.  It is good to remember that we have our own orphan cemetery right here in Frankford down at Wilmot Park on Meadow Street.

Remarks Prepared for the Historical Commission of Philadelphia

 September 16, 2015

My name is John Buffington. I do neighborhood history rather like Joe Menkevich.

I know a bit about Orphan Cemeteries.

Four generations of several sides of my family rest in a rural Cemetery in South Alabama. My ashes will be there too eventually.

Both of my grandmothers, during near impoverished widowhood, managed to scrape together a modest amount every year to contribute to the informal system for caring for the resting place of the people that they loved.

We buried one of my grandmothers quite close to the fence that runs alongside a 2 Lane State Road.

A few years later the Alabama highway department anticipating the need to someday widen the route from Montgomery to Mobile, condemned additional right of way on both sides of that road.

No one had standing to speak for our dead.

My grandmother now lies in highway right-of-way. If the highway department decides to widen on our side of the road, her grave may be desecrated.

Eventually descendants of the folks in that cemetery got together and organized “The Buffington Cemetery Trust”. We got our federal tax exemption and conducted a fund drive.  I was the founding chair of the Board of Trustees. When I wrote the trust indenture, I stated our intention to maintain and protect that cemetery forevermore.

Then I took the Trust indenture to the Conecuh county courthouse and recorded it in the land records.

Now if anybody ever wants to mess with that cemetery, they know who they have to call.

I also wrote organizing documents and served as chair of the Knowlton Preservation Committee.

When the last standing country house designed by Philadelphia’s greatest architect, Frank Furness, went on the market, neighbors and preservationists and Furness devotees were alarmed to learn that the leading proposal for reuse would have taken most of the site for condominiums, utterly depriving that fabulous building of its remaining context.

The mere existence of an engaged organized constituency, coupled with the legal protections that this great city has put in place, headed off development plans until Jack Conroy, the world’s most acute caterer, came along with a plan that made the most of the architectural asset and sacrificed only the orchard (for parking), a single cut in the rear of the building for a door, and part of the view from the rear.

Twenty-five or so people who immersed themselves in that matter bless the name Conroy and the existence of legal strictures on the development of historic properties every time Knowlton is mentioned.

I want to be on the mailing list whenever the independence or budget of The Philadelphia Historical Commission is threatened.

Who speaks for recognized African-American cemeteries? Doug Mooney mostly.

Who speaks for the restless dead who lie in unlisted ground like Byberry African American Cemetery, Hart Cemetery and Wilmot Playground?  Right now that would be Joe Menkevich.

I know several African Americans who know that their families have been in Frankford longer than my family has been in south Alabama.  They are as proud of their heritage as I am of mine.

My fond hope is that Joe is not the only person who cares about orphan cemeteries of many anonymous souls who labored and served in colonial Philadelphia. I hope that this application will be the catalyst for organizing to speak for the dead. I am ready to write another set of organizing documents. I will hope for a call.

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Deed Restrictions of Frankford and NE Philadelphia

Preserving and Promoting the History of Northeast Philadelphia Since 1905
The Center for Northeast Philadelphia History
Tuesday, 11 November 2014 7:30pm
Featuring Northwood and Crestmont Farms
Joseph Menkevich and Debbie Klak

Join Society members and guests for a slide show presentation and display on the genesis and impact of neighborhood deed restrictions in Northeast Philadelphia – including those of Northwood (Burk) and Crestmont Farms (Torresdale). Mr Menkevich has done extensive research on these deeds and identified several historic maps and surveys from the City Archives never before seen in public. Newspaper clippings from the Society’s Edward Becker collection will also be displayed.
 Refreshments served. Members free; Others $5.00
1507 Orthodox Street, Philadelphia, PA 19124

Tuesday, 09 December 2014 7:30pm
Frankford’s Home Grown Historians

A first for the Society—members will have a chance to meet and greet local historians/authors—some who have previously offered programs at the Society. They will be signing copies of their books and sharing previews of their upcoming works. These make great gifts—join us!
Join Society members/volunteers in this festive Annual Holiday Tea.
Please bring light fare/desserts to share.
 Refreshments served. Members free; Others $5.00
1507 Orthodox Street, Philadelphia, PA 19124
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The Savaging of Tina Tartaglione

Political Commentary by John Buffington is the first in a series.  His opinions are entirely his own.

My friend Joe Menkevich and I were planted on adjacent bar stools when Danny Savage strolled up looking for the possible vote.

Joe is always ready with conversation for a politician. This time my ears started to vibrate when Danny said that his opponent, Sen. Tartaglione, voted twice against taxing Marcellus Shale gas production. I got Danny to repeat that one directly to me, and he promised to send me the details.

No follow-up from Danny has ever arrived. Danny’s campaign literature doesn’t include a phone number. The number at Danny’s website is disconnected; it forwards to another number that is also disconnected. Danny is unreachable by telephone.

So I researched Sen. Tartaglione’s record on shale gas taxation without further help from Danny.

What Sen. T voted against was Act 13, which includes a modest “extraction fee”. Republicans who have sworn to avoid new taxes need euphemisms, so the Act 13 tax became an “extraction fee”.

Tina Tartaglione wasn’t alone in voting against Act 13. Every Democrat in the state Senate voted No on final passage.

Act 13 is the Corbett administration’s vehicle for turning Pennsylvania into the Saudi Arabia of Shale gas production. It isn’t especially controversial hereabouts, yet, because there’s a moratorium on fracking in the Delaware River basin and the pipelines haven’t been built through here yet. So you can’t smell or taste fracking in Philadelphia. Yet.

Danny Savage’s campaign flyers claim that he will “fight to pass a real tax will on natural gas drilling…”. Maybe so, but it’s not good to start the effort by lying about your opponent’s record.

On March 31, Sen. T. and four other senators started circulating a request for additional sponsors for SB 1333, which would impose a 5% tax on shale gas extraction.

I have been observing politics with horrible fascination for more than 50 years. I have seen plenty of politicians blowing smoke like Danny. It is a pleasure; believe me, when I occasionally stumble on a politician who is doing the right thing for purely virtuous reasons, and doing it quietly.

It isn’t politically correct around here, yet, to do the right thing about shale gas extraction because you can’t smell or taste the poison here, yet. Tina Tartaglione looks to me like a politician who is doing the right thing quietly.

I asked the Brendan Boyle campaign about his position on taxing fracking proceeds and learned that he voted against Act 13.

I asked the Daylin Leach campaign and they referred me to a staff member in Senator Leach’s office. It turns out that Sen. Leach is devoting a lot of resources to this also, despite the lack of promotional potential.

Imagine that. I stumbled on not one but two politicians in the same campaign season who actively care about the public interest.

Senator Leach voted against Act 13 and has signed on as a sponsor of SB 1333. His staff member gave me enough material to write a book on fracking.

I also heard from a third school of thought. The Delaware Riverkeeper takes the position that fracking to produce natural gas is inherently disastrous for both air and water, and taxing it is just a distraction. Their website is a good place to start finding out about the issue.

I plan to do an occasional piece on local politics for the Gazette. If you spot a politician blowing smoke, please let me know.

John Buffington
May 2014