Germantown: A Town Of Its Own
Germantown has a reputation of being one of those neighborhoods for Philadelphians. It is poor. African-Americans are the majority; whites are a minority. The robbery rate is high. All of these facts might lead a someone to easily 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, a retired 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 fairly upscale neighborhood when I was in high school,” said Stackhouse.
It’s through the now illegal practice of “block busting” that translated the neighborhood into a more diverse and ethnic neighborhood and 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 the residents to put their houses up for sale and move out into the suburbs of Philadelphia, now known commonly as “white flight.”
“Within weeks, they [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 on moving himself and his new wife out to East Locust Street.
“They were the last years of the white flight,” said Stackhouse on when he bought his home. His house sits atop a hill in the valley and shadow 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 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 them integrated nicely with all the races, which is unique for Philadelphia.”
Additionally, he insists that Germantown has had a past 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 its use.
“The Germans couldn’t understand slavery, that’s why so many Germantowners went into battle,” said Stackhouse.
The battle Stackhouse has in mind is the Civil War. In fact, Germantown’s involvement is the best recognized among other Philadelphia neighborhoods.
“It has the only documented stop in the underground in Philadelphia,” said Stackhouse.
The Johnson House, which has been recognized as the Underground Railroad stop in Germantown, but it is not the only spot or family in the neighborhood that was directly involved in helping with 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 familiar of decade old buildings decorate the surrounding block of homes and offices, in a former effort to restore some history to the area.
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 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 was through them that the society has been alive for the past 110 years. It is through them that the down turn of the economy hasn’t harnessed Stackhouse’s and the 50 other German Historical Society’s volunteers from
coming back and dedicating their own time to preserving the memory of the past.
Stackhouse said as he stared up the stairs of the old building, “Everywhere you look there’s history.”