by Lori Goldstein
Since 2014, the African American Museum of Bucks County (AAMBC) has been a mobile museum.
Its van has traveled directly to schools, libraries, and senior citizen centers to share the untold story, “From Africa to Bucks County.”
On display in 2019 at the Pearl S. Buck International House, the museum’s exhibits of artifacts may be currently viewed at the Bucks County Visitor Center in Bensalem until December 31st, 2020.
Just two months ago, the County Commissioners voted to lease to AABMC a permanent home for $1 a year: the Godfrey-Kirk house, a national historic landmark, built in 1717, on the land formerly known as Boone Farm in Middletown Township.
How AAMBC came to be is a story in itself.
Linda Salley, the Board’s president and executive director, recounts her meeting Harvey Spencer, a fellow church member, who pointed out to her and other church members that “not any of our children knows anything about our history. We have to teach them our history so they understand where they come from, and why, and what we have gone through.”
Harvey gathered some people together, including his friend Millard Mitchell, a self-taught historian who was a lecturer on the Underground Railroad in Yardley and past president of the Bucks County chapter of the NAACP.
Millard told his life story, the group listened to each other’s stories, and Linda, who had worked as a teacher and administrator for the New York Board of Education for 38 years, said, “Yes, this is something we need to do. We need to teach our children our history, but not only our children. It has to be inclusive. We must teach all children and adults so that everybody will have a better understanding of who we are, and what our ancestors have accomplished in Bucks County.”
Although Harvey and Millard passed away a few years ago, Harvey “put a burning passion in my heart,” says Linda. “He motivated us to continue, and once we opened this door and allowed people to learn of us, they welcomed us into their communities to tell the story that has never been told, about African Americans in Bucks County. As Martin Luther King said, ‘We don’t know each other because we don’t communicate with each other.’”
The museum will fulfill the need for enlightening everyone about how African American history is American history.
Up until the pandemic, AAMBC members visited schools in Bucks County and Trenton to teach children about the original homes of those who were enslaved in Africa – how beautiful their countries were and how fancy their clothing was.
They would explain how Africans were captured, chained on ships and sold as slaves in America, then how they escaped via the Underground Railroad, migrating north – relying on their resilience and strength to make better lives for themselves.
Some of the AAMBC storytellers appeared in costume to reenact the lives of such figures as Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, President Thomas Jefferson, his wife Martha and his concubine, Sarah Hemmings, a slave on his plantation.
“We visited Trenton High School, Bucks County Technical High School, Pearl S. Buck Elementary School. The children were overwhelmed,” says Linda. “They had never seen history like this before. They were inspired, they kept saying how wonderful it was. The word got out, and that’s how we were assigned to appear at 11 different schools in Bucks County.”
AAMBC had also planned a speaker series but, due to the pandemic, was able to complete only one event: The Art of Thomas McKenney, a Bucks County artist who has traveled all over Europe.
The exhibit of his artwork is still on display at the Bucks County Visitor Center.
AAMBC has also produced a documentary on African American Civil War soldiers, whose tombstones were recently installed at Slate Hill Cemetery in Yardley.
Donations from Lower Makefield Township and Remington Vernick Engineers made the filming of the documentary possible; it will be accessible on the AAMBC website as well as on the LMT Government Access Channels (Verizon 20, Comcast 22).
Going forward, the museum plans to produce additional videos focusing on the untold stories of African Americans in Bucks County.
Since AAMBC had to cancel its speaker engagements, AAMBC member Ruben Christie said, “Why don’t we give back to the community?” and they did so – with a pandemic relief program that provided groceries for over 100 families in primarily Langhorne and Bristol.
A partnership with Giant and Shoprite food stores and 10 volunteers from their church, the African Methodist Episcopalian (AME) church in Bensalem, made Ruben’s solution a success.
How Linda Salley came to find Boone Farm is another story indeed.
After 9/11, she decided to retire as a NYC education administrator, her husband, Alonso, got a job in Philadelphia, and they raised their two boys and two girls in Levittown.
Linda decided to teach a group of women in their seventies, who called themselves “Young at Heart,” how to quilt.
As they sewed, the women shared stories of how they had escaped the cruelty of the South.
They had planned to migrate to New York, but when they heard there were jobs to be had on Boone Farm in Bucks County, that’s where they stayed.
Every morning trucks would pick up the farm workers from where they lived in Bristol and transport them back home from the fields in the evening.
With the creation of AAMBC and Linda’s appointment as its president and executive director, Bucks County Commissioner Diane Ellis- Marseglia became a strong advocate for AAMBC, attending every exhibit and securing the AAMBC van so they could travel safely as a mobile museum.
“One night I received a call from Diane,” describes Linda. “She said ‘Linda, you know that house you wanted on the hill? The house is called Boone Farm.’”
Linda replied, “Do you know the story of Boone Farm? I never knew where Boone Farm was. I just liked the house because Harvey liked the house.”
It was a shock to her when Diane said, “That’s the house the county is going to give you.”
The design of AAMBC’s new home is underway with architect Emmanuel Kelly installing insulation and laying out plans for exhibit rooms – using the building’s strong foundation and retaining as many original features of the 1717 structure as possible.
Linda says that one exhibit will focus on Judge Clyde Waite, who still presides as the first African-American judge in Bucks County.
Another exhibit will focus on the contributions of Frederick Douglass.
The museum will also explore how the Underground Railroad came through the AME church, which Richard and Sarah Allen founded in Philadelphia.
Richard Allen was a traveling minister, whose visits to AME churches in Bucks County are documented with papers containing his signature.
Manumissions from friends of the museum and the Office of Deeds and Records will be on display.
AAMBC will continue its work as a mobile museum, delivering live presentations and virtual programs to schools when students are not able to come to the physical museum.
A capital campaign is underway; donations to the building fund may be made online at www.infoaambc.org or mailed to AAMBC at 215 East Richardson Avenue, Langhorne, PA 19047.
Linda points out that “our mission is to educate about the heritage, to illuminate the African American experience and the contributions they have made to Bucks County and beyond. I want the building to stand forever for people of all ages to come, to open up their minds and move forward in peace.”
PHOTO CAP: African American Museum of Bucks County dedicated executive board members, seated from left, Roger Brown, Linda Salley, Bill Reed, and Sharon Lentz; standing, Roger Deal Wright, Millicene Brown, Natalie Kaye, Ruben Christee, and Alonzo Salley.