POTTSTOWN, Pa. (AP) — Before Henry Louis Gates Jr. made "Finding Your Roots" a household program on PBS, Johnny Corson was making surprising discoveries about his family on his own.
They were discoveries that traced back generations to the fight against slavery, an unexpected Quaker past, and a thirst for equality and justice that seems to run in the family.
His unexpected connection to the Corson family also gave a deeper dimension to efforts by the NAACP to protect the family farm, and historic Abolition Hall in Plymouth Meeting, from encroachment by developers.
It taught him that family history certainly can be black history; but in the end, "it's all American history."
Corson is perhaps best known these days as the president of the Pottstown Chapter of the NAACP.
But when he was born 56 years ago, a child of a black man and a white woman was not someone many wanted to know much about in 1960s-era Pennsylvania.
His biological mother, Betsy Corson, gave him her name, but also gave him up to the foster care system. (He has since met his biological father, who prefers to remain unnamed.)
In the foster care system, "I was abused physically and emotionally," Corson says matter-of-factly.
He said he was saved when he came to Pottstown at age 7 and was taken into the loving home of Janie Brant, pastor of the Church of the Living God.
"Pottstown was my original family," said Corson, who has never left the town that gave him his first real home.
Corson spent his formative years in her household and under the watchful eye of the adults who ran the Ricketts Community Center on Beech Street.
He was mentored by men with names that people of a certain generation in Pottstown will recognize — 'Clapper' White, Sam Green and Newstell Marable, who Corson succeeded as head of Pottstown's NAACP chapter.
Those mentors, he said, taught him how to stand up for himself, and for what's right. They were lessons that would resonate as he took his journey of self-discovery and discovered he comes by those tendencies naturally.
As a teenager, Corson asked Brant if she would adopt him and she advised him to first learn all he could about his roots.
Although the foster agency would not reveal the location of his parents, one caseworker contacted the family and asked if any would be willing to meet Corson.
His aunt Binnie, who died last year in Florida, agreed to meet him and the two forged a close relationship.
Corson only met his mother twice. But his aunt Binnie taught him about the Corson family.
And it was a revelation.
He was amazed to discover that his ancestors included, Simon Cameron Corson, a railroad engineer who spent a brief stint in Pottstown and who, as the borough engineer for Norristown designed Elmwood Park.
"If Binnie had not agreed to meet me I might have never met my mother or found my family," Corson said.
Going several generations further back, Corson discovered another notable ancestor, George Corson.
This Corson was an ardent abolitionist who built Abolition Hall, a meetinghouse in Plymouth Meeting visited by such notable abolitionists as Frederick Douglass and Harriet Beecher Stowe.
In addition to a safe place for anti-slavery rhetoric, the Corson farm, at the corner of Butler and Germantown pikes in Whitemarsh Township, was also a safe place for runaway slaves to hide, and was a crucial regional stop on the Underground Railroad.
So when local residents began to protest plans by K. Hovnanian Homes for a 67-unit townhouse development butted up against the historic properties on the site, Corson got involved.
The homebuilder bought the 10.5-acre Corson site from family heirs in 2016, according to a 2018 article in The Norristown Times Herald.
Hovnanian’s plans do not call for the removal of Abolition Hall or its neighboring buildings, all of which are listed on the National Register of Historic Places. Rather, the townhomes would be built around the structures.
However, the issue is not purely about preserving the structures, which are already protected, as they stand in the Plymouth Meeting Historic District. People protesting the development — an advocacy group called Friends of Abolition Hall— are also interested in preserving some of the land around the structures.
And in September 2018, the national NAACP took up that cause after being contacted by Corson.
"The NAACP, Friends of Abolition Hall and other advocates are calling for a new plan that would protect the site and create a Welcome Park where individuals could learn about the former site where countless enslaved Africans on the escape from chattel slavery found refuge as they trekked north," according to a Sept. 12, 2018 press release from the national office.
Among the NAACP's requests is that: "Whitemarsh Township should commit to acquiring a conservation easement, or outright title, to approximately two acres of land immediately adjacent (to the north/northeast) to the historic structures in order to protect and forever preserve this land, and thereafter create a public Welcome Park with interpretive signage that teaches the unique history of the homestead," according to the release.
One day after that position statement was issued, he attended the meeting of the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors.
There he to spoke about the need to protect his family's legacy and its importance to black history. Corson and his two sons, Jonathan and Matthew, are the only male members of the family to carry the Corson name forward.
And that family legacy is inextricably intertwined with black American history.
During the mid-1800s, Abolition Hall was a roughly 200-capacity venue for meetings of the Montgomery County Anti-Slavery Society, a group George Corson helped found in 1837.
After arsonists burned down a nearby abolitionist meetinghouse, (George) Corson, whose family were descended from Quakers, built a second story on his carriage house, so he could host speakers in stealth.
According to National Register of Historic Places documents, Corson’s barn, which still stands on the estate, “sheltered many slaves during that period. They would lie low there during the day and then, under cover of darkness, continue their journey to freedom in Canada.”
Corson sheltered escaped slaves at great risk to himself and his family. Under the Fugitive Slave Act of 1850, aiding runaway slaves was considered an offense punishable by six months in prison and up to $1,000 dollars in fines, according to the Times Herald article.
Even so, “there were perhaps few more devoted men than George Corson to the interests of the oppressed everywhere. The slave, fleeing from his master, ever found a home with him, and felt while there that no slave-hunter would get him away until every means of protection should fail,” wrote abolitionist William Still in an 1872 history of The Underground Railroad.
“This history is America’s history,” Johnny Corson said of the site. “And it’s a history worth preserving for generations to come.”
In October 2018, township supervisors granted conditional use approval for the plan, but imposed 21 conditions.
However, the plan has yet to receive a recommendation for preliminary site plan approval from the Whitemarsh Planning Commission.
Township Manager Richard L. Mellor Jr. said Feb. 7 that the planning commission rejected recommending the preliminary site plan approval in a unanimous vote in Dec. 10.
"There are still numerous issues in regard to the plan," he said. The township has until May to vote on the preliminary plans, according to activist Sydelle Zove
If, or when, a recommendation for final site plan approval is issued, it must still be approved by the board of supervisors.
Because the development project is in an historic district, the design for the townhouses must be approved by the township's historic architecture review board, and that recommendation also must be approved by the township supervisors board, Mellor said.
Corson remains concerned about the project because, he noted, so much of black history is not recorded and sites like this, documented as Underground Railroad stations, should be preserved and enhanced.
"America was built on the backs of black Americans," said Corson.
Referring to Crispus Attucks, the first person killed when British soldiers fired on a Boston mob in what became known as "Boston Massacre," Corson said, "remember that the first man to die in the cause of independence was black. The blood on the ground that was spilled for freedom, was the blood of a black man."
Dutch Godshalk contributed to this article.
Information from: The Mercury, http://www.pottsmerc.com