As a part of the activity surrounding the world premiere of Mud Row, the cast, creative team, and People’s Light staff were invited to the Charles A. Melton Arts and Education Center in West Chester to embark on a walking tour of the East End. Our guide was Penny L. Washington, a longtime West Chester resident and the West Chester Historical Consultant for the play. Marcie Bramucci, Director of Community Investment here at People’s Light, first met Miss Penny at the Melton Center’s 100th Anniversary Gala earlier this year. I was invited to accompany them on the tour to help document Miss Penny’s stories. You can listen to her own words in the accompanying video, and read about my experience below.
Upon first entering the Melton Center, I was greeted by a sensational experience of lineage. Adults went about their business, their steps tapping with audible purpose. The laughter of young ones resounded from recreational rooms; the occasional small body burst forth with glee. There were elders, too – people who once made their way through this place in the same way their younger counterparts do now. It was immediately clear that the ancestral foundations of this place - those who helped build the Center to what it is today - remain just as important as those actively using it now, and the young people who will trace their lineage here in the future.
During the pre-tour introductions, this theme rang powerfully again. I was introduced to West Chester Mayor Dianne Herrin; the photographer for the event, Darcie Goldberg; and of course our wonderful tour guide, Miss Penny. I then got to meet the mayor’s assistant, a young graduate student named Emily, as well as Darcie’s intern, another young woman who just finished her freshman year in college. They were both present to assist and learn, like I was. I quickly realized that this was not just a tour for the sake of promotional materials and press. As Miss Penny guided us through the complex history of West Chester’s African American communities, I understood that this tour was also about preserving and expanding the legacy of these places and people, first by our mentors but eventually by ourselves. We were learning about the past to better our present, so that we could look ahead while still honoring the foundations our elders have provided for us. How perfect, then, that we were a group assembled who embodied this vision: a group that consisted of active professionals making changes in their communities and students working towards an equally active future, all informed by the wisdom evoked by Miss Penny.
The tour began in the Melton Center’s auditorium, where Miss Penny described the incredible lengths it took to build the Center into what it is today. She described the bravery and boldness of its founders, who had to jump countless hurdles to build a space for African Americans when Jim Crow laws barred black people from such basic liberties. Miss Penny was especially deliberate to point out the painting of the Center’s founder, Dr. Leslie Pinkney Hill. She stopped at a few more images along the corridor, all of people whose contributions shaped the Melton Center and in turn, the larger West Chester community. The final image was a photograph by the entrance. Miss Penny clearly and proudly let us know that the woman pictured was her old neighbor and kindergarten teacher: Ms. Sara Maxfield. As she paid homage to this important educator, she competed with the chatter of giddy children in the next room, beautifully summarizing the coalescence of past, present, and future generations that can happen in a place like this.
We made our way out of the building and onto East Miner Street to start the walking part of the tour. In between what Miss Penny called the “official” stops, she took a moment to share an anecdote or make an observation when we passed something of note. Her eyes would light up, she’d smile, and she’d give us her personal connection to the place. In this way we got to see two sides of West Chester:
We saw the large foundations of the ever-changing African American communities at landmarks like St. Paul’s Baptist Church and Bethel A.M.E. Church, which were not a block apart, yet catered to different congregations. We stopped at the iconic Magnolia House Hotel, whose fate is tenuous despite playing a major role in housing the black community when there were few alternatives and even housing Frederick Douglas. We learned about other cornerstones of West Chester’s developing Civil Rights Movement like the Tent Sister’s Hall on South Adams Street, which served as a stop on the Underground Railroad and to provide scholarship money to students; or the Star Social Club on East Market Street, which became a town hall for the black men in West Chester, where they could discuss issues faced by the community.
Dotted throughout these seminal community markers was the unofficial tour. Between churches, Miss Penny was stopped twice by people she knew – both times just to say “hi,” catch up, and perhaps celebrate the fact that their community’s history was being shared. While we explored the outdoor architecture of St. Paul’s Baptist Church, we discovered oyster shells in the ground; remnants of West Chester’s entrepreneurial black oyster salespeople now embedded in the literal foundation of the town. Some of the current residents of the Magnolia House Hotel came out to greet us and we chatted about how the building has changed. While they didn’t all know the history of the building, they all seemed to cherish the kinship it provided. Miss Penny also made sure to share her own family roots. She showed us the street her great-grandfather lived on and took us a few blocks over to see the birthplace of her mother. She explained the building’s lineage, how her grandparents ended up there, and how it ultimately changed hands to a different family. As we made these tangential and potent pit-stops, I was reminded yet again that West Chester is as much the powerful foundations of its ancestry as it is the people who are there now, and the memories and experiences that make this place theirs.
One other thing became clear to me as we made our way through the East End. In between stopping at the historic and personal landmarks, Miss Penny often took a moment to point out the architecture around us. Her knowledge of the building and their materials was impressive on its own, but it also served to demonstrate the very tangible effects of gentrification. She gestured to an original home and said “this is uniquely this place,” and then, to a new home, “but that could be anywhere.” To Miss Penny, it seemed that the soul of West Chester was in those older buildings. Through her description of the era, materials, hidden details, and the architectural anomalies of the buildings, she was cluing us in to just what makes West Chester so special. Each building holds some kind of story within its walls and its people, and they are being renovated, removed, and replaced.
We eventually made our way back to the Melton Center, our eyes opened in a new way to West Chester’s big and little splendors. Marcie and I hung back with Miss Penny while the others headed out, and she confided in us that while she was glad everyone could make it, she was especially happy that Mayor Herrin was there, and from here there were clear and actionable steps to help preserve history. The tour was a powerful teaching. In a cohesive two-hours experience, Miss Penny demonstrated how the past informs our present, and how, depending on what actions we take now, we can effect change for our futures.
Watch the video to hear directly from Penny Washington:
About the Author
Grant Landau-Williams started with People’s Light first as a theatre student, taking their Arts Education programs for many years growing up, which ultimately inspired Grant to pursue theatre in higher education. While on breaks from Skidmore College Grant would intern with the company, learning what they could from various departments while also working at the Farmhouse. During the school year Grant was acting, directing, and eventually writing but it was the continued support from the People’s Light staff that got them into the management and production side of theatre as well. While getting familiar with many different aspects of People’s Light, Grant had opportunities to work closely with the Director of Community Investment, Marcie Bramucci, who taught them about producing events inspired by and geared towards the community surrounding the theatre. With this background Grant was able to become the Manager of Outreach and Inclusion during their senior year at Skidmore, adding management under their belt. Having recently graduated from Skidmore College Grant is now pursuing a more involved role in the theatre world and has been assisting during community investment events, like the walking tour of West Chester’s East End for Mud Row!
Photos by Darcie Goldberg