By George Coates, Jr.
after the protests over the horrific death of George Floyd began, it became de
that academic and cultural institutions regardless of their stated …
By George Coates, Jr.
Shortly after the protests over the horrific death of George Floyd began, it became de riguer that academic and cultural institutions regardless of their stated mission officially support the social justice and political movement Black Lives Matter. Such a statement of support was drafted and signed by 13 institutions in Chestnut Hill. The 13 co-signatories, all non-profits, include civic associations, elite cultural institutions, toney private schools and one of the most prominent country clubs in the greater Philadelphia area, self-proclaimed as the oldest country club in the United States. At least two of those institutions, however, appear to have a conflict of interest with their statement of support.
The Philadelphia Cricket Club’s (PCC) main club house is best viewed from Willow Grove Avenue across a flawless expanse of grass tennis courts, each as perfectly groomed as the golf greens on the other side of the building. PCC, a signatory to the community statement of support for Black Lives Matter, is currently embroiled in a membership and community wide debate on changing its Native American profile logo, which many in the community find offensive. The club’s next-door neighbor, Rev. Jarrett Kerbel of St. Martin-in-the-fields Episcopal church, has publicly called on the club to change its logo on the grounds that his congregation is repeatedly harmed by the logo’s visual presence, which is prominent on a sign clearly visible from both properties. Internally, club members Christina Paul and Eliza Griswold are aggressively collecting signatures on a petition to change the logo as well.
Club president Mr. F. John White has remained publicly silent about the debate, but the club’s conflicting positions are clearly called out in Paul and Griswold’s letter to him asking for the logo to be changed:
“Given what is happening around the country regarding issues of race and, recently, native American logos and mascots, it would seem that if the PCC signed statement with true intent, it now needs to resolve its logo issue.”
They are correct. The club cannot remain in public support of Black Lives Matter when adherence to that movement’s demands for anti-racist action also calls for the cultural revision of logos such as PCC’s Native American profile. If the logo is changed, the club resolves the conflict. If PCC withdraws from the community statement of support, the club resolves the conflict. But one or the other must happen.
Matters become even more conflicted at the Chestnut Hill Conservancy (CHC). For 53 years the CHC’s primary mission has been the preservation of architectural facades and historic buildings, and the curation of a 20,000- item architectural archive. More recently the CHC embraced open land conservation. On that front in the past several years they have eased more than 130 acres in the northwest neighborhoods of Philadelphia, a truly remarkable gift to the city.
The CHC is a signatory to the community statement in support of Black Lives Matter, and its executive director is one of the statement’s principal authors. In the drafting process, the CHC’s director was also the most adamant voice in refusing to condemn the destruction of property in that statement, and like Ms. Paul and Ms. Griswold, correctly. Supporting Black Lives Matter and condemning the destruction of property are positions in conflict with each other. Black Lives Matters organizers and protest participants have repeatedly called the destruction of property an acceptable form of protest. The day after the Miracle Mile in Chicago was looted and much of it destroyed, BLM organizer Ariel Atkins was filmed by a local NBC crew making the statement: “I don’t care if someone decides to loot a Gucci or a Macy’s or a Nike store, because that makes sure that person eats… That is reparations, anything they wanted to take, they can take it because these businesses have insurance.” Property is irrelevant.
When the rioting and looting began in Philadelphia much of the city center was damaged or destroyed, including innumerable historic buildings, the CHC was silent. When Philadelphia Inquirer architecture critic Inga Saffron wrote an article decrying that civic destruction originally, and insensitively, titled “Buildings Matter, Too” and was savaged in the public square for doing so, the CHC was silent.
More recently, the Philadelphia Inquirer ran an op-ed entitled ‘As we await Columbus statue’s fate, Philly should plan to review all monuments." While there was a recent point in time when the paper of record in a major American city embracing cultural revisionism through the physical demolition of art and architecture in the name of social justice would be shocking that moment is firmly behind us, and the CHC was silent. As they must be - they support Black Lives Matter and Black Lives Matter condones the destruction of property as a legitimate form of protest and a redeemable repayment of reparations. In doing so, the CHC has suborned their own mission statement to that of BLM, creating an operational conflict which, like the Philadelphia Cricket Club’s, remains unresolved.
Finally, it is worth noting the boards and leadership staff of all 13 signatories are predominately and, in several cases, exclusively white. They may have seen the statement as a way to assuage overwhelming white guilt, and as individuals they would be free and in fact encouraged to exercise their first amendment rights as they see fit. But when they put the institutions they are responsible for in conflict to assuage that guilt, they have abandoned their duty as stewards of those institutions. When rushing to support what is just, across Philadelphia and indeed across the nation, more care needs to be taken by those in charge of our cultural and academic institutions that those institutions are not damaged or compromised in the process.
George Coates, Jr is Board Chair of The Commonwealth Foundation, a former board member of the Chestnut Hill Conservancy, and a resident of Chestnut Hill.