This weekend, St. Paul's Elkins Park, a historic Episcopal church in Cheltenham, will celebrate the role of the church and the locale in hastening the dawn of freedom for African Americans in the United States.
In special programs on Saturday and Sunday, the church will open "The Old York Road to Freedom," a permanent exhibition commemorating the Underground Railroad, the secret system by which slaves were smuggled to freedom.
The schedule is full. Actors from the American Historical Theatre will portray such historic figures as Harriet Tubman (who traveled the Railroad to Philadelphia in 1848) and Lucretia Mott (whose house on Old York Road in Cheltenham was a major Underground Railroad way station). There will also be lectures by local historians, a gospel concert by the church choir, and, in the church crypt, a replica of a station on the Underground Railroad.
"We've got a heck of a combination of people in our parish," said the Rev. Paul DeWitt Reid, rector of St. Paul's. "We're a very articulate bunch and very spiritual bunch." He said more people should appreciate the importance of Cheltenham's history, and he hopes the church celebration will give "our community a focal point."
Creating the installation and program was a two-year process, led by St. Paul's multicultural congregation of artists, graphic designers, and poets.
St. Paul's role in the abolitionist cause goes back to its founder, Jay Cooke, a financier who helped fund the Union Army in the Civil War and who raised the equivalent of $3.26 trillion in 2014 dollars in bonds to end slavery. Cooke was known to have a close friendship with Mott, an abolitionist and women's rights activist.
"Philadelphia was the center of the abolition movement in the United States," said Thomas Wieckowski, vice president of the Old York Road Historical Society and a member of the Cheltenham Township Historical Commission. On Sunday, he will lead an illustrated talk on Cheltenham's abolition movement.
Francis Daniel Pastorius, founder of Germantown, drafted and cosigned the first formal protest against slavery in America, in 1688. Cheltenham housed Camp William Penn, the first and largest federal training facility for black soldiers in the Civil War. And the John Johnson House, on Germantown Avenue in Philadelphia, was a station on the Underground Railroad.
Reid also wanted to create a space for children, in particular, to learn about the country's tumultuous history with enslavement. A space for children is also important for actress Millicent Sparks, who will portray Tubman on Sunday. Sparks, who has done extensive research into Tubman's life, has been portraying her since 2002. Her performance "seems to help to empower, especially a lot of African American children," Sparks said. She remembers holding her head down in class during discussions of slavery, but she said black children should "hold their head up and see the mighty people they come from."
After her performance, staying in character as Tubman, Sparks will answer questions from the audience. From leading more than 300 slaves to freedom to leading an armed raid that freed 700 slaves in South Carolina, Sparks said, Tubman "was one of the most incredible Americans of the 19th century."
Sparks has been portraying Tubman for 13 years. "It gives me a lot of pride," she said. "I feel like I've been able to dispel a lot of myths on Harriet Tubman that were written by those who wanted to slant history."
Connecting the spiritual and the historical isn't a stretch for Reid or his multiracial congregation. "We can't tell this story without talking about the depth of African American faith, from then to now," Reid said. "Their deep and abiding faith is what got them through."
Wieckowski hopes audiences come to admire that kind of perseverance. The establishment of Camp William Penn, he said, signified the beginning of the civil rights movement as people began to move beyond the abolition of slavery to talk of equality. Explaining the arduous and often slow process, he said, gives added perspective on the continuation of the struggle today.
"You can't be discouraged because you in your lifetime can't see results," Wieckowski said.
As for the Underground Railroad station replica, attendees will walk down to the church basement, through a lengthy dark tunnel, to a false door, giving a sense of the stealth and bravery required of African Americans questing for freedom in 19th-century America.
Reid said that as a nation, we "still have not gotten over the consequences" of slavery. "Hearts need to be changed," he said. "We need to get to work.
"I can tell you what we pray," Reid said. "We have worked really hard at working at this exhibition, making it something that changes people."
St. Paul's Elkins Park, 7809 Old York Rd., Elkins Park.
Schedule: Saturday, noon to 5 p.m.: Free shows and events. 7 p.m.: Grand celebration concert (adult tickets: $20). Sunday, noon to 5: Free shows and events.