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Bishop's marble bust survived long journey back to Philadelphia

A 134-year old bust of Bishop Richard Allen that was once lost was recently found in the library of America's oldest black-owned college.

A 134-year old bust of Bishop Richard Allen that was once lost was recently found in the library of America's oldest black-owned college.

Perched atop the library reference desk at Ohio's Wilberforce University was the 3-foot tall white, Italian marble bust that survived a train wreck and a tornado.

"This is the first African-American public sculptural project," said Susanna Gold of the Tyler School of Art at Temple University. This was "a public project that was provided by, and sponsored by African-Americans and dedicated to an African-American. It's exciting to bring it back home."

Allen, a former slave and educator established the Mother Bethel AME Church in 1794, and two decades later he and several regional congregational members formed the African Methodist Episcopal, the first independent black denomination.

A group of AME members and church officials established a committee to raise funds to erect a monument in memory of the esteemed bishop in 1873. It was to be part of a collection of statues unveiled during the 1876 United States Centennial Celebration in Fairmount Park.

Alfred White, a British-born sculptor and manufacturer based in Cincinnati, Ohio, created the 22-foot monument consisting of four Roman-style pillars and the bust as the centerpiece. He captured the thoughtfulness and seriousness of Allen, his widow's peak and curly hair. He sported an ascot.

Traveling from Ohio to Philadelphia, a train carrying the monument derailed. The entire monument except for the bust was destroyed.

"It was a very lucky piece," said John Carr, the principal conservator at Milner and Carr Conservation, in Philadelphia, where the bust is being treated.

The Allen bust was denied a home in Fairmount Park for the Centennial and the marble sculpture was relocated to Wilberforce, which was badly battered by a tornado in 1974. The bust was found and placed in the university's library following repair of campus buildings.

"People didn't know what it was," said Gold. "They knew who it was."

"It was in really good condition," said Alisa Vignalo, the Objects Conservator at Milner and Carr Conservation.

Gold tracked down the 120-pound marble piece in 2007 followed by Rev. Mark Tyler of the Mother Bethel AME church in 2008, who finally managed to bring the monumental piece back to Philly.

"There's no public monument at all of Richard Allen other than Richard Allen homes, a housing project, and so our hope is that this will be something that will literally lead to some kind of serious debate, some kind of serious effort to have some kind of lasting monument to Richard Allen in the city," Tyler said. "I think it's long overdue."

The bust, on loan for a year, will be unveiled Thursday at 7 p.m. at the First District AME headquarters, at 3801 Market St.