This week’s 2022 Community Initiative Award winner spotlight is on Concord Township’s preservation of the Spring Valley AME Church in Delaware County.
This project in Delaware County caught the eagle eye of one of my colleagues last year from some press reporting and I’m glad it did. She just happened to be the SHPO’s reviewer for most projects that were undertaken with funds from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD), particularly using Community Development Block Grant (CDBG) money.
Using CDBG funds for historic preservation – like Concord Township did – is a great way for communities to invest in the older and historic places that matter to them and that tell their full stories.
I asked John Gillespie, Concord Township Supervisor, and Amanda Serock, Concord Township Manager, to tell me more about their community and this project.
We can’t begin to tell the whole story in one blog post but its a start!
Can you tell me a little bit about the history of Concord Township and Spring Valley AME Church?
Concord Township was formed in June of 1683. Originally located in Chester County, the township became part of Delaware County when Chester County was partitioned in 1789. Concord Township encompassed four villages [Concordville, Elam, Markham and Ward] whose past tells the story of Pennsylvania and early America’s development. Located at a vital transportation hub, the Township’s development has always reflected major national and regional economic and demographic trends.
Concord is unique in that it followed the ideal plan that Penn wanted: a square with rectangular tracts, and streets laid out north/south and east/west. Concord also occupies two of the earliest public roads in the English colonies: Baltimore Pike or U.S. Route One, and Concord Road, laid out by William Penn’s surveyors. Concord Township is rich in history that began with the earliest PA mushroom farms and canneries and a thriving tavern and inn industry in the mid-18th century.
Concord Township is still thriving and is the second largest land mass in Delaware County encompassing 13.7 sq. miles, has a population of over 18,000 residents, has over 325 acres of open space, is 83% residentially zoned, is home to the award winning Garnet Valley School District, and is one of the most sought after zip codes in Delaware County. We are #ConcordProud!
Spring Valley African Methodist Episcopal (AME) Church was built on an acre of land purchased in 1880 and was the focal point for the area’s Black community. In 1900, about 1/5th of the township’s population in 1900 was African American and most worked and lived on the area’s many farms. In 1938, the congregation had 67 members and by 1958, that had dropped to only 40 members.
The church was vacated in the 1980s after the small congregation disbanded and the property was purchased by local developer in 1997. Shortly after, an arson fire damaged the church, resulting in the loss of the social hall that was located behind the sanctuary. The owner repaired the damaged church, but the building remained vacant until the township purchased it in 2014.
CBDG money can be used for a lot of things from planning to affordable housing to historic preservation. Most of Pennsylvania’s communities use it for community infrastructure improvements, like water systems, sidewalks and curbs, etc. But using a CDBG grant for historic preservation is pretty unusual in our experience! Can you tell us how you were able to use that funding for a preservation project?
Criteria for the CDBG grant includes historic preservation and accessibility, and we were able to achieve both with this project. The Township received two CDBG Grants since the dilapidated building was purchased in 2014.
The first grant was received in 2017 and included exterior preservation and ADA accessibility into the church.
The second grant was received in 2021 and it was for interior work to include safety upgrades for electrical work, HVAC work, and flooring. Work is still underway.
Township council also budgeted monies for additional site improvements, fencing, a monument for the cemetery, and more.
The connection that Township was able to make with former congregation members and the descendants of other members is a great example for community engagement. Can you share with our readers the most important lessons you learned – as a local municipality – about meaningful community engagement around a historic place?
Once the Township took over ownership of the church, we quickly realized that there was a lot of history still to be told about the AME Church. For example, a few years ago, we learned there may be burials around the church after some historic research revealed several death certifies associated the property. We learned through ground penetrating radar (GPR) that there about 10 potential grave sites around the church.
Recognizing that we were still putting the pieces of the puzzle together along with our Historical Society and Historical Commission, the Township decided to get the word out on the project and to try and reach out to the original families and descendants of those who attended the church. The most valuable contributions came from networking and discussing the project at various events.
Through those conversations we discovered death certificates that led to the location of graves, we met dozens of family members who attended the church, we helped make a dying woman’s wish come true to hold a ceremony outside of the church before it was restored, we met a photographer who specialized in photo journalism of African American churches locally, and we even met Jamie Wyeth, who attended church there with his family and wanted to be involved in the project.
(Editor’s fun fact! The Andrew Wyeth family (yes, that Andrew Wyeth…) often attended this church, and Wyeth painted Spring Valley AME’s deacon, Andrew Davis, in “The Turtleneck.”)
Working to preserve this historic gem and connect with the original Spring Valley families has been an absolute honor!
Have additional historic places been identified / prioritized to help tell the township’s story?
Concord Township is lucky to have a very engaged Historical Society and Council appointed Historical Commission who work to preserve the Township’s history and prioritize lists of important structures that tell the story of our Township.
We have close to 200 known properties that are categorized on a historic resource inventory list, which is maintained by our Historical Commission. Additionally, we work with our Historical Society in educating the public on the Township’s history.
What is next for the Spring Valley AME Church?
We are currently adding the finishing touches to the interior of the building and we anticipate a grand opening in 2024. The current plan for the property is that the church would be a part of the museum system run by the Township in partnership with the Historical Society.
We want to continue telling this important history of the AME Church in our township through the stories of the beautiful families who attended the church.
Are there other organizations, people, or companies you’d like to acknowledge for their contributions to this project and its success?
This project required the hands of many and we would like to acknowledge the following:
- The original Spring Valley families (members and descendants) for continuing to join the Township in remembering the church and sharing their pictures and stories about its history.
- Betty Byrd Smith (original Spring Valley family member) for working directly with the Township to connect all of the families and provide us with pictures and history on the church.
- Township Staff & my colleagues on Council for recognizing the importance of preserving this history in our Township and working tirelessly to make it happen.
- Township Historical Society & Historical Commission for partnering with Council on the purchase, renovations and for providing historical references, pictures, and connections to the original members and descendants of the church.
- Jamie Wyeth for providing priceless art work and keeping his family memories and love of our Township alive.
- Ted Goldman (photographer & journalist) for documenting and sharing our story and connecting the Township with Jamie Wyeth. (Editor’s note: I’d also like to thank Ted for generously sharing his photos, writing, and insights with me.)
- Brandywine River Museum of Art for assisting with the art work donated and the Juneteenth Ceremony with the Spring Valley families.
I grew up on the farm across the road from the church. We enjoyed sitting on the porch and listening to the beautiful singing.