Audrey Johnson-Thornton attributes the realization of the Belmont Mansion Underground Railroad Museum to faith. At more than 80 years old, Johnson-Thornton spent the last 29 years after retirement from secular work putting into place the American Heritage Women’s Society, the only African-American organization of its kind.
Their pet project of restoring the once abandoned and dilapidated Fairmount Park home to an abolitionist is now complete. So, Johnson-Thornton is heeding God’s call to retire from this volunteer effort to listen for her next calling. This move will be marked with a special invite only celebration at the Belmont Mansion Sunday, Nov. 2.
As a member of St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Germantown for more than 40 years, Johnson-Thornton said she has had many mystical experiences relating to the Belmont Mansion restoration. The first came in a meeting with Scottie Gambala, the former president of the old Strawberry Mansion.
“Looking back I can see God’s hand in the entire process,” Johnson-Thornton said. “I could not have done this without the many prayers and things revealed to me.
“At the very beginning I think that God had me have that conversation with Scottie. She planted the seed for women of color to restore the mansion. This was a time when the Playhouse mansion and the other buildings were going to be torn down,” Johnson-Thornton said.
The next divine intervention came as the newly formed group of African-American women were raising funds for the project. Even as a member of one of the mayoral commissions some 30 years ago, most thought the females would not be able to raise the resources.
“I heard so many ask what were these African-American women doing restoring an historical house,” Johnson-Thornton said. “I even said to myself, ‘My God, how are we going to do this?’ Just then it came to me that as long as we started the process God was going to bless it.
“In my prayers I would ask God if this was his will. I knew that if it was something God wanted us to do that it would get done. I learned that God is always faithful because from that moment he has been with us through thick and thin,” she said.
It was at a Sunday concert featuring vocalist Kathleen Battle at the Kimmel Center that proved to be a major fundraising turning point for the American Women’s Heritage Society. She was feeling a bit blue about the monetary shortfalls in the Belmont projects. Johnson-Thornton came to the concert to simply enjoy the performance and get her mind off fundraising.
During the concert’s interlude members of the Kimmel Center board came to the stage and shared an overview of the Belmont Mansion. They said that the society was raising funds and spoke of their upcoming fundraising event. Then a surprised Johnson-Thornton was asked to stand up and be recognized by the sold-out crowd at the performing arts venue.
“As I was standing there I knew this had to be God,” Johnson-Thornton said. “There were so many people there who had never heard of the project and were willing to support it. I was astonished that we got the assistance to keep the project alive. In just three minutes everything changed, and I knew that God told him to say that and to move those hearts.”
Since the Belmont Mansion was a stop on the Underground Railroad, Johnson-Thornton thinks it is that sacred connection that likely has kept the project growing and expanding. At the Nov. 2 gala the board will celebrate the opening of the new Cornelia Well Banquet Hall with a champagne toast and birthday cake cutting ceremony. Wells was an enslaved African who served at the mansion. Those present will also be introduced to the group’s new executive director, Naomi Nelson, an adjunct art history professor at The Lincoln University. Nelson also served as vice president of the National Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati.