Henry Minton was an abolitionist, caterer and restaurateur. In his Philadelphia residence, he entertained Frederick Douglass and gave John Brown a place to stay shortly before the Harpers Ferry raid. Midwood Investment & Development has doomed his residence and place of business to demolition.
Meet Henry Minton
204 S. 12th Street was home to Henry Minton (1811-1883), an elite caterer and leading abolitionist who hosted, among others, Frederick Douglass, John Brown and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. He was a co-signer of a Civil War recruitment poster.
Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer, Midwood Investment & Development CEO John Usdan laid bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand.
The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Midwood CEO John Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, Black history apparently is not American history.Faye Anderson, All That Philly Jazz
Why Should We Save the Henry Minton House?
Philadelphia is a city where history has happened. From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was home to leading Black abolitionists including Henry Minton. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. In 2019, the Keeping Society of Philadelphia nominated the Henry Minton House for inclusion on the local register. The nomination was rejected. The decision by the Philadelphia Historical Commission reflects systemic racism. In an essay published in The New Yorker, Casey Cep wrote: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”
The Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and voted against adding the Henry Minton House to the local register. A building whose walls hold stories of the Underground Railroad was denied protection from Midwood Investment & Development’s wrecking ball. The Commission’s all-white staff applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House could not pass.
The Commission sided with Midwood’s lawyer who said, “If these bricks and sticks do not tell the cultural story, they should not be designated.” But the “bricks and sticks” do tell the story. The building’s distinctive profile and window pattern remain visible. Moreover, the location is associated with events of historical significance. William Still lived just 400 feet away. Although Still’s house is demolished, the site is identified by a state historical marker, dedicated in 1991.
Minton was a celebrated restaurateur and caterer who hosted John Brown, Frederick Douglass and William Still. 204 S. 12th Street was a meeting place for Black leaders including Thomas Dorsey, Henry Jones, Rev. Stephen Smith and Octavius V. Catto. They would “frequently meet during the anxious days of slavery and the war, and discuss the questions touching upon the interests of their race.” Minton, Douglass, Dorsey, Smith and Catto were co-signers of an 1863 Civil War recruitment poster.
In his landmark study The Philadelphia Negro published in 1899, W.E.B. Du Bois devoted a section in the chapter “The Negro in Philadelphia, 1820–1896” to “The guild of caterers, 1840–1870.” Minton was included in Du Bois’ triumvirate of elite caterers who “took complete leadership of the bewildered group of Negroes, and led them steadily on to a degree of affluence, culture and respect such as has probably never been surpassed in the history of the Negro in America.”
Du Bois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”
Minton died in 1883. He is buried in the Historic Eden Cemetery, a national historic landmark.
In 1897 Minton’s son, Theophilus J. Minton (1847–1909), cofounded the American Negro Historical Society whose mission was to study and preserve materials documenting the Black experience. The organization’s records are in the collections of the Historical Society of Pennsylvania.
Minton’s grandson and namesake, Henry McKee Minton (1870–1946), cofounded Sigma Pi Phi, the nation’s first Black Greek-letter fraternity. Also known as the Boulé, its members included Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., W.E.B. Du Bois, James Weldon Johnson, Paul R. Williams and John Lewis. Current members include Wynton Marsalis, Congressman James E. Clyburn and former attorney general Eric Holder.