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Plymouth Whitemarsh alums' book becomes focus for Black History Month

Plymouth Whitemarsh alums' book becomes focus for Black History Month
Cover of "A Village Remembered"

A book published by two Plymouth Whitemarsh High School graduates is being used during Black History Month to inspire today’s students to appreciate (and perhaps preserve) the historical landmarks that they may see every day on their way to and from school.

Called “A Village Remembered,” the short paperback book features colorful paintings by Carol Worthington-Levy (a member of the Distinguished Graduates Organization) and touching poetry by Dr. Arthur Turfa. Copies of it have been provided to all schools in the district and faculty and staff have been finding creative ways to use the book in school as part of the celebration of Black History Month. 

Students are being prompted – through art classes, library classes, and even a visit to one of the sites featured in the book – to think about local history and the impact that their ancestors had on the area and the early days of the United States, especially with regard to the Abolitionist movement of the 1800s.

How "A Village Remembered" came to be

The idea for the book came to Ms. Worthington-Levy at a time when she learned that development was threatening some of the historical buildings she had always been curious about as a child. She grew up hearing stories from her mother and grandmother about the old homes in the area that were stops on the Underground Railroad. She recalled seeing evidence of the area’s history after a large tree was uprooted during a storm. In the chasm left by the roots, she was able to see pots and bowls and her mother told her about the underground tunnels and extra basements built throughout the area during the 1800s.

Carol Worthington-Levy

Artist Carol Worthington-Levy

“That really piqued my interest,” she said.

As an adult, she began doing her own research about buildings and homes in the area and painted many of those considered to be at the heart of the village of Plymouth Meeting. She also reached out to her former classmate, Dr. Turfa, to talk about what she was learning with regard to proposed development in the area of Butler and Germantown Pike, where Abolition Hall is located.  

“Plymouth Meeting had grown substantially and newly-arrived people who took jobs in the area didn’t have the benefit of having grown up in and around Plymouth Meeting,” she said. “They saw no problem with razing old buildings to build condos.”

She was concerned that historical landmarks would be demolished. She and Dr. Turfa, who had worked previously on an "ekphrastic" book where his poetry described her artwork, decided together that they would publish another book about the area as a way to raise awareness. The book was published via Amazon to make it affordable, with proceeds to benefit the Preservation Pennsylvania organization. The first day the book was made available, Ms. Worthington-Levy said it became the number one book in the history category on Amazon.

Dr. Arthur Turfa

            Poet Dr. Arthur Turfa

People brought the book to public meetings to show their support for the preservation of the area’s landmarks, and after many years of negotiations, the developer eventually pulled out of the agreement to build. The Abolition Hall property has since been preserved by Whitemarsh Township and the Whitemarsh Art Center. 

Inspiring students to take an interest in and preserve history

Both are relieved that the landmarks they cherished growing up will hopefully be here for many years to come, and they are excited to know that students are being introduced to those landmarks through their book.

“I guess I’m humbled and honored and excited,” said Dr. Turfa. “I would like them to realize that we are two people who sat where they sat and that we have created something, and that they can, too.”

Ms. Worthington-Levy is hoping that students might be influenced to pursue historical preservation efforts by either fundraising or doing their own research about the area.

“I love seeing the combination of them being inspired by art to dig into history,” said Ms. Worthington-Levy.

The graduates also hope that students develop an appreciation for the bravery of their ancestors. Ms. Worthington-Levy noted that George Corson (a wealthy local business leader whose family previously owned Abolition Hall and surrounding land) and others who joined him in the Abolitionist movement broke the law and jeopardized their livelihoods in order to support people escaping slavery. She recalled one of her favorite stories about Mr. Corson, who took off in the middle of the night to transport escaped slaves in the village to a safer place, once he found out that law enforcement was going to make a sweep through the area.

“We want people, especially students, to realize that the folks who lived here before them really took a stand,” said Dr. Turfa. “We want them to get passionate about something and to do something about it and stick with it.”

Getting to know the area's landmarks

Dr. Turfa said his favorite landmark in the area is the Plymouth Meeting Friends Meetinghouse, because of what it represents. He said Pennsylvania was one of the few places initially where religious freedom was truly observed. The meetinghouse was a place where all were welcome.

In addition to highlighting the buildings that played a role in the Abolitionist movement, the book also includes paintings and poems about places like the former William Jeanes Memorial Library, which was located on the same property as the Friends Meetinghouse. Dr. Turfa said he remembers walking to the library, which was filled to the brim with books that inspired him. A few lines from his poem in the book express his appreciation for that space.

“We walked or rode our bikes, at 

Times we got a lift there, and entered

A place of wonder. Books not found

At school or homes, temporarily ours.”

Other points of inspiration were the area’s limekilns, some of which were in his literal backyard. 

“I used to hang out there and go sledding,” he recalled. 

Dr. Turfa, who now lives in South Carolina, and Ms. Worthington-Levy, who lives in California, met during high school and said they didn’t remember much of the area’s local history being pulled into what they learned. Today’s students, however, are learning more through the sharing of the book and classroom activities related to it. Watch for more stories this month about how students are connecting to “A Village Remembered.”

Note: Interview questions for Dr. Turfa and Ms. Worthington-Levy were provided by Plymouth Whitemarsh High School’s Black Cultural Awareness Club, with the responses woven into this article.