Germantown Historical Society
5501 Germantown Ave.
Germantown has a reputation as one of those neighborhoods in Philadelphia that is often stereotyped. Its population is primarily African-American and poor. The robbery rate is high. These facts might easily lead someone to make assumptions about the neighborhood.
But there’s no other place where you’ll find documents of a botanist who corresponded with Darwin himself. Nor will you find any other place else in the U.S. where the first protest against slavery took place.
“Germantown is a fascinating place. There’s no place in Philadelphia that has as much history,” said Eugene Stackhouse, former president of the Germantown Historical Society. Stackhouse, 68, added, “I live in a house on a hill where some of the battle of Germantown took place. Two naval officers lived in my house from that time.”
So you might ask yourself as an outsider, 'what happened?'
“Germantown was a fairly upscale neighborhood when I was in high school,” said Stackhouse.
But this changed when the now illegal practice of “blockbusting” induced white flight. “It was a great disgrace. Cheap houses would be sold to a black family, then the realtors would go around and tell the neighbors that the blacks are invading,” said Stackhouse. This fear quickly prompted some of the white residents to put their houses up for sale and move out into the suburbs of Philadelphia.
“Within weeks, [the whites] sold,” Stackhouse explained. “They were afraid and wanted to get out.” But Stackhouse, then a resident of Kensington, went against the current of white flight. Seeing an opportunity, he decided to move himself and his new wife to East Locust Street.
“They were the last years of the white flight,” said Stackhouse about when he bought his home. His house sits atop a hill in view of LaSalle University and Central High School. “It has seven bedrooms, the downstairs is the size of a restaurant,” he beamed proudly over what he considered to be one of the best deals he made in his lifetime.
But Stackhouse explained that blockbusting in the City was just the beginning. “That was a pretty sad period in Philadelphia… When that happened there were fights and people burned down houses,” he said with a sigh.
“My wife and I don’t care what color our neighbors are… I got a big beautiful house for little money,” explained Stackhouse. “In spite all of the blockbusting, all of [the blocks in Germantown] integrated nicely with all the races, which is unique for Philadelphia.”
Additionally, he insists that Germantown has had a history of supporting equality and fairness. It was in Germantown that the first protest against slavery occurred. German immigrants in 1688 wrote a letter to the Quakers of the community arguing against it.
“The Germans couldn’t understand slavery, that’s why so many Germantowners went into battle,” said Stackhouse. The battle Stackhouse refers to is the Civil War. In fact, Germantown’s involvement stands out among other Philadelphia neighborhoods. “It has the only documented stop in the underground [railroad] in Philadelphia,” said Stackhouse. The Johnson House is the recognized Underground Railroad stop in Germantown, though it was not the only location or family in the neighborhood directly involved in the war effort. “By the end of the war, 2,000 doctors, nurses …and volunteers had joined to fight. Some units were even trained here,” Stackhouse added.
But now the fanfare and drills of the Union blue don’t resound past the trapped and dust-collecting manila folders in the building of the Germantown Historical Society. Located on 5501 Germantown Ave., the house had false facades similar to decade-old buildings that decorate the surrounding block of homes and offices.
The memory of historical movements and the former glory of Germantown all wind down to this one building. It’s the warehouse of previous actions and events that created the term, Germantowner. “Sure, even when I moved in, you would never see anyone write Philadelphia on their mail. It would always have been Germantown,” said Stackhouse. After having been incorporated into the city of Philadelphia 110 years ago, the community still considered itself different.
As Stackhouse made his way down the stairs, he exclaimed, pointing at a flight cramped with portraits, “This is our wall of fame at Germantown Historical Society.” Behind him was his own picture. The faces of men and women, black and white, all stared back. It is because of them that the Society has been alive for the past 110 years. It of because of them that the downturn of the economy hasn’t stopped Stackhouse and the 50 other Germantown Historical Society’s volunteers from coming back and dedicating their own time to preserve the memory of the past.
Stackhouse said, as he stared up the stairs of the old building, “Everywhere you look there’s history.”
This article was written and reported by Anna Berezowska and Genevieve LeMay for Philadelphia Neighborhoods, a publication of Temple University's Multimedia Urban Reporting Lab, and originally published on February 4, 2011.