Audrey R. Johnson-Thornton, 93, the force behind the restoration of Belmont Mansion and a respected figure in black women’s service organizations, died Monday, April 8, of chronic obstructive pulmonary disease at home.
“She was having health challenges for some time now, but at 93 years, she put up a good fight,” her family said. “Her passing was peaceful and painless.”
In 1986, Mrs. Johnson-Thornton founded the American Women’s Heritage Society, an African American women’s organization dedicated to restoring and maintaining Belmont Mansion in Fairmount Park. The colonial-era home of a family that included an abolitionist was dilapidated and abandoned.
Mrs. Johnson-Thornton was determined to preserve the building. She raised money, arranged a $1 annual lease from the City of Philadelphia, and mustered Temple University graduate students to research the structure’s past. When the team found that the mansion had been a stop on the Underground Railroad, she decided to recast the building’s past as a chapter in African American history.
“There was a 400-acre tract across this estate,” she told CBS3 in 2013. “A train would cross the grounds, and they would help the slaves jump the boxcars to get free and go up to Canada.”
An enslaved American named Cornelia Wells had worked at the mansion. Once she obtained her freedom, she became an entrepreneur.
The heritage society decided to tell the story of the Underground Railroad in an onsite museum. It also built the Cornelia Wells Banquet Hall for public gatherings, paying for the addition with grants, tour fees, and public and private donations.
The restoration had its detractors. City officials claimed the colors used were not historically accurate. They wanted to see the building put to other uses.
''The city is the one who let Belmont Mansion be abandoned and deteriorated,'' Mrs. Johnson-Thornton told the New York Times in late 1987. ''We’re not going to let them take it back.”
In 2014, after 28 years as president of the heritage society, Mrs. Johnson-Thornton stepped down. She told the Philadelphia Tribune that her Christian faith had helped her persevere.
“Looking back, I can see God’s hand in the entire process,” she told the newspaper.
Although Mrs. Johnson-Thornton is best known for her work at Belmont Mansion, she also volunteered with the African American Chamber of Commerce, served on Lincoln University’s board of trustees, and was active in the National Association of University Women. She served on the Mayor’s Commission for Women, and worked with the Urban League of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia Orchestra’s cultural diversity initiative.
Born in West Philadelphia, Mrs. Johnson-Thornton graduated from West Philadelphia High School and earned a bachelor’s degree in human services from Antioch College, as well as a master’s degree in education from Goddard University.
She started out modeling in Philadelphia and was the owner-operator of a beauty shop that sold and styled wigs for performers such as Diana Ross and Patti LaBelle.
She was married to Bernard J. Thornton Sr. Mrs. Johnson-Thornton, her parents Ruth and Lonnie Patrick, and her brothers and sisters founded and ran Timberlake Camp and Ski Lodge in Lenhartsville, Berks County. The business provided outdoor camping experiences for thousands of underprivileged youngsters before closing.
Mrs. Johnson-Thornton received many honors, including the Martin Luther King Drum Major Award from the City of Philadelphia. “She was a strong and proud black woman committed to African and black history,” said her daughter Naomi Booker.
Mrs. Johnson-Thornton’s husband died in January. In addition to her daughter, she is survived by daughters Linda and Rebecca, and four granddaughters.
A viewing will be held from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Friday, April 19, at the Belmont Mansion, 2000 Belmont Mansion Dr. Another viewing starting at 9 a.m. Saturday, April 20, will be followed by 10 a.m. funeral services at St. Luke’s Episcopal Church, 5421 Germantown Ave. Burial will be in Westminster Cemetery, Bala Cynwyd.
Donations may be made to the American Women’s Heritage Society, 2000 Belmont Mansion Dr., Philadelphia, Pa. 19131.