After a wait of nearly a decade, “LancasterHistory, the developer of the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site at the corner of Queen and Vine streets in downtown Lancaster, recently received $150,000 in grants that will allow the organization to take a step forward,” LNP’s Mary Ellen Wright wrote June 4. The grants will enable the hiring of a consulting group to plan out the project, which doesn’t yet have a price tag. “The site is projected to be a museum and scholarship center based around the lives and legacies of Stevens, an abolitionist attorney, congressman and public education advocate, and Smith, the manager of his household and a successful local African American businesswoman in her own right,” Wright wrote.
We’re excited about what this project could mean for Lancaster.
And we find it encouraging that LancasterHistory wants to make sure it’s handled the right way. That will take time.
“These are planning grants,” LancasterHistory President and CEO Thomas Ryan said regarding the funds for the historic but vacant site next door to the Lancaster County Convention Center. “It’s to plan, not to execute.”
And you can’t execute without a solid plan.
Stevens’ association with the location dates to the 1840s, when he lived and had his law offices at the corner of Queen and Vine. The site, which LancasterHistory took over from the Historic Preservation Trust of Lancaster County about nine years ago, has yielded thousands of artifacts during past archaeological digs. With its 10,000-square-foot subterranean space, it is particularly well-suited for extensive history exhibits.
Stevens and Smith are two of the most important and laudable figures in Lancaster County history.
Stevens used his position as an attorney to assist the abolitionist and civil rights movements. After the Civil War, he worked to prevent former Confederates from being seated in Congress, thus allowing Reconstruction to proceed. LNP notes that he “is considered by historians to be the father of the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which defined U.S. citizenship and extended citizens’ rights to the states” and is “also seen as a driving force behind the 13th and 15th amendments, which outlawed slavery and gave African American men the right to vote, respectively.”
Smith, while managing her own successful business ventures, “was the manager of Thaddeus Stevens’ household, was his political confidant, helped raise his nephews, was his caregiver at the end of his life and helped manage his estate after his death,” LNP notes.
Smith and Stevens both helped with the Underground Railroad, a network of secret routes and safe houses used by African American slaves to escape to free states and Canada.
It is clear that while a center dedicated to these two Lancastrians could be a great attraction, this is a project that must be done with care.
With the $150,000 in grants, Ryan said LancasterHistory has hired Roz Consulting Group of Philadelphia to oversee the planning. Community stakeholders from the neighborhood are getting an opportunity to share their thoughts.
“We want to make sure that local people know that their input is valued, (so that they can) help us guide this museum so it becomes the integral fabric of the community,” Ryan told Wright.
LancasterHistory will also invite 16 to 18 scholars to visit the site and provide guidance on how it will be historically interpreted. The organization will consult with “museum professionals from around the country who are at the top of their game,” LancasterHistory Vice President Robin Sarratt told Wright.
The grant money will also help LancasterHistory hire fundraising and financial consultants to help determine the project’s overall cost, feasibility and sustainability.
Once the cost is determined, fundraising is likely to begin next year — another big step toward the goal of making Lancaster’s history come alive for residents and tourists.
Local historians and community members also are excited about the opportunity at the Thaddeus Stevens & Lydia Hamilton Smith Historic Site.
Darlene Colon, a living-history character interpreter who portrays Smith at community events, told Wright that she envisions part of the site being “a women’s living-history center, and I see Lydia being there and inviting some of her peers to tea, and joining the community in telling the stories of their lives.”
The site could also help tell the tale of “civil rights, women’s rights and anti-slavery — and it’s a story that still has value today,” Leroy Hopkins, professor emeritus of Millersville University and president of the African American Historical Society of South Central Pennsylvania, told Wright.
The project should also be an opportunity to give Stevens his due.
“I’d eventually love to see Thaddeus Stevens represented as a pivotal figure in American history, comparable to people like Thomas Jefferson, Abraham Lincoln and Franklin Roosevelt and such,” Ross Hetrick, a Gettysburg resident who is president of the Thaddeus Stevens Society, told Wright.
Added Gettysburg College history professor Michael J. Birkner: “I think this is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to tell the Thaddeus Stevens story in a way that, essentially, breaks through the crust of old and erroneous notions about who Stevens was and what he represented, and to tell the story of Thaddeus Stevens as, really, a 19th-century hero for a more egalitarian America and a less racist America.”
The shared and individual stories of Stevens and Smith strike us as more essential than ever.
We applaud LancasterHistory for gathering input from a diverse set of individuals in the local and academic communities. Debating as many ideas and museum approaches as possible will help this project get done right.
It’s an approach that we suspect Stevens and Smith would have loved.