Bucks County leaders on Wednesday broke ground on a planned African American museum near Langhorne, Pennsylvania. Work has begun on a $3.7 million renovation project to turn the 18th-century stone house into one of the few black-centered historic landmarks in the entire county.
When it opens, likely in 2024, the Bucks County African American Museum will be the only African American museum in all four counties surrounding Philadelphia.
“I’m thrilled,” said Linda Sulley, the museum’s executive director. “Long wait.”
The new museum’s three-story, 4,000-square-foot home along Langhorne-Newtown Road in Middletown Township was once the historic Boone Farm. The property is now owned by the county. With boarded up windows and a crumbling porch, it has been dilapidated for as long as residents can remember.
“I’ve been driving past it since I was a candy stripper in St. Mary’s [Medical Center] in 1974,” said Diane Ellis-Marseilla, county commissioner. “As the manager of Middletown, I’ve had a lot of people complain, ‘What are you going to do with this building?’
Around 2018, Ellis-Marseilla found a match at the Bucks County African American Museum, an independent nonprofit founded in 2014. It is located at the nearby Langhorne Manor and has always operated as a nomadic exhibitor.
Sully said the museum will tell the story of Bucks County, from the Lenni Lenape people, through black slavery and emancipation to the Great Migration of the 20th century.
“You can’t talk about this land without talking about the Lenape Indians because it belonged to them. They gave this land to William Penn,” she said. “We have to start at the beginning and bring it up to date because that’s the problem: the story has never been told. Bucks County has many beautiful museums. I’ve been to all of them. But none of them tell our story.”
In 2020, Bucks County leased the Boone Farm property to the museum for $1, but the COVID pandemic slowed the project. Together, the museum and the county are raising renovation costs with public funds and private donations, including gifts from Parx Casino and Sesame Place. At Wednesday’s groundbreaking ceremony, state Rep. Frank Ferry announced the state will contribute $250,000 to the project.
The Boone Farm isn’t just an affordable property ripe for redevelopment: it played a role in Bucks County’s African-American history.
While teaching a quilting class in Bristol about 20 years ago, Sally discovered that some of her older students could trace their families back to the Boone farm during the Great Migration of the early 20th century, when many black people from the South moved north in search of work.
“One day one of the ladies said, ‘Do you know how we got here?’ I said, ‘No, I’m not,'” Sally recalled. “She says, ‘We moved from Mississippi. We went out in the middle of the night and there was a pamphlet or a leaflet or whatever they had back then. We took him and told the family, “They’re hiring at Boone Farm.”
Sully had never heard of the Boone farm before and had no idea where it was.
“I said, ‘Really?’ “Yes, we worked on the Boone farm and we made enough money on that farm. Nobody took our money. We saved it, bought houses and sent the kids to college.”
Many of the families who worked the Boone farm later settled permanently in Bucks County.
Now every window in the Boone homestead is broken and the door is boarded up with plywood. Buck County Project Officer Bernard Griggs said the interior was completely destroyed, with no electrical, plumbing or climate control systems intact. Part of the reconstruction is to install new windows and doors, replace the roof, carry out structural repairs, and carry out utility networks.
The landscape surrounding the building will be partially paved for parking, cleared of dry and dying trees and landscaped for stormwater management.
“There is also an elevator in the building because it will be public. By code, it has to have an elevator,” Griggs said. “As the owners of the project, we committed to do the full core and shell design, all the prep work and all that, and then basically hand the white box over to the museum staff to do their display assembly and interior finishing.”
Improvement works are starting immediately, and it is planned to start repairing the house at the beginning of next year. Griggs said the county will likely work on the property for about a year before handing over the keys to the museum.
This article first appeared on WHY.org.