Underground Railroad site and museum the Johnson House is one in a cohort of Historic Germantown sites that recently received a collective $1 million grant for infrastructure improvements.
The portion of the $1 million — made available through the state Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program (RACP) — the Johnson House will receive, has not been determined yet, but according to Historic Germantown Executive Director Tuomi Forrest, it will be one of the two largest awards, if not the largest, the Johnson House has ever received.
“I’m excited because we had long wanted to make repairs on the inside of our site. When we got the Pew grant, we put a lot of money in the basement to shore up and rebuild the brick columns that held the house up. We did that five years ago but now we want to concentrate on doing some of the other work,” said Cornelia Swinson, Johnson House Executive Director. “
It’s critically important. If we don’t do it, meaning, we African-American people of color don’t preserve this site, who will?”
The Johnson House was built in 1768 and is named for a Quaker family that lived there and helped enslaved Africans escape to freedom. According to the Johnson House’s history, Father of the Abolitionist Movement William Still held meetings there, while “tradition holds” that Harriet Tubman also made stops at the home.
Swinson said Johnson House is also a rarity as it is “one of the few accessible historic house museums open to the public.”
A scope of work lists restoring plaster, installing interior storm windows, replacing basement wiring for the mansion house and repairing exterior walls and installing doors on the outbuilding as a few of the dozens of repairs to be completed.
State Rep. Stephen Kinsey (D-201), who helped connect Historic Germantown to the RACP Grant, said the award is a gain for the community that the Johnson House serves.
“Johnson House for me is very pivotal. For one, from a historical perspective — the fact that it served as a part of the Underground Railroad and then on a personal note, my daughter, on her mom side, is a descendant of William Still,” Kinsey said. “He played a major part in trying to help the slaves reconnect with their families as they traveled from the South through the northern states.
“On top of that…Part of my mission is to make sure local kids have the opportunity to partake in and learn not only about the history of our country but the history of our people. And the Johnson House provides that. They serve as that instrument where they have sessions and they work with the local schools to educate our kids about not only the history of the United States, but the history of their people. I think that’s important. Black History is a part of American History and if we don’t preserve that portion of Black history, the reality is we are not telling the real story of American history.”
Forrest agreed, stating that the Johnson House furthers the message of freedom with relevant modern programming in addition to its history programs.
“I think it’s always been critically important [and] now more than ever in the climate that we are living in really to lift up the amazing work that the leaders at the Johnson site have been doing, not just to tell story of the Underground Railroad and why it’s important to not just Black History, but American history overall. But, also really connecting that story to contemporary issues, themes of social justice, especially as it affects the lives of people living in our community right now,” he said.
“The Johnson House historic site is a model not just locally but nationally in how it connects the historic themes it lifts up in its story to contemporary issues, whether they be the current prison industrial complex and its effect on Black and brown people or the effects of inadequate funding for schooling in Philadelphia and a whole range of other issues. This award helps recognize that and lifts it up so more people can appreciate and understand why the Johnson House is important.”