Pearl Buck and Her Early Civil Rights Legacy

Author and humanitarian Pearl S. Buck supported many causes during her lifetime, and her early support of the American civil rights movement is among the most important parts of her legacy. 

Buck took a public stand against racism shortly before her return to the United States in the mid-1930s and then became a key civil rights supporter in crucial time in the battle for racial equality. 

Pearl Buck in 1932 as photographed by Arnold Genthe.

Until the publication of her second novel The Good Earth in 1931, Buck was an obscure figure in the United States. Her debut novel, East Wind, West Wind, appeared a year earlier to favorable reviews. Buck had also written some guest contributions for publications. However, within a year, Buck had become a bestselling writer in the country at the age of 40 and something of an enigma. 

What was known about Pearl S. Buck to the general public was her upbringing as the daughter of missionaries in China; her ability to tell the story of the common people of China; and her new position as an expert in Chinese (and Asian) affairs. As far as Buck’s personal ideals and politics, very little was known publicly. That would change during the 1930s when Buck quickly became associated with the National Urban League, and then later the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) as she supported equal rights for Black citizens. 

A Brief History of Perkasie’s Mayors

For the first time since 1977, Perkasie Borough has a contested mayoral race next Tuesday, as three candidates vie to replace the retiring mayor, John Hollenbach.

Carey S. Groff

Hollenbach is the longest-tenured Mayor in Perkasie Borough history, serving more than 12 years. But he is not the longest-tenured chief executive. Before 1961, Perkasie’s executive head was the “Chief Burgess.” Carey S. Groff served four terms as the burgess from 1918 to 1933, and his successor, Harleigh Apple, was in office from 1934 to 1947.

LeRoy Kulp had the singular honor of holding both titles when the state changed the name of Chief Burgess to Mayor in 1961.

Borough founder Joseph A. Hendricks was also the first Chief Burgess of Perkasie in 1879. Until 1891, Perkasie elected a burgess each February who served for one year. The term became three years in 1891, and in 1917, the election was moved to November and the term became four years.

What was the difference between a burgess and a mayor? According to the official Pennsylvania Mayor’s Manual, the Chief Burgess had much more power in the early days of that office.

At the time when Hendricks became Perkasie’s first Chief Burgess in 1879, Hendricks supervised borough council and he could conduct criminal hearings if someone violated a borough ordinance. In 1893, the burgess lost the power to run borough council but was given veto power over any borough council vote or resolution. Eventually, the burgess also lost the ability to hold hearings, but the Chief Burgess had a role with the borough’s police department. Those powers didn’t change in 1961 when the burgess became the mayor.

The Pennsylvania Mayor’s Manual defines the job of the modern mayor as such:

“Borough Councils now exercise most appointive and legislative powers formerly exercised by burgesses. Nevertheless, the mayor remains as the ceremonial head of borough government even though not technically a member of the Borough Council. Even though modern mayors under Pennsylvania’s present Borough Code possess less legislative, administrative and judicial powers than before, they exercise important powers and duties under it and are also in a unique position to exercise leadership in the community because of the prestige of the office and its elected status. In fact, in many boroughs the mayor is the only borough-wide elected person who participates in the work of the borough on a regular basis.”

The mayor’s most important administrative roles are in the supervision of the police department and the casting a veto of many (but not all) Borough Council votes. The mayor can also delegate the supervision of the police department to borough management. In reality, the mayor, the police department and borough management work together on public safety issues.

The mayor can also issue emergency declarations and make proclamations, and perform the following special services:

  • Borough mayors are authorized to solemnize marriages.
  • The mayor is authorized to administer oaths and affirmations in matters pertaining to borough affairs.
  • Mayors can report to council on citizen reactions to municipal activities and developing problems brought to their attention.

In Perkasie’s history, the Chief Burgess or Mayor has rarely issued a veto of a borough council vote. In February 1910, Chief Burgess Bean vetoed the council’s purchase of a steam road roller, but the veto was overridden. Among the most-controversial vetoes in Perkasie’s history was in 1930, when council overrode Chief Burgess Groff’s veto of the Blue Laws, which closed movie theaters on Sunday in Perkasie. The laws were later replaced in 1934.

And in 1996, Mayor Godshall vetoed a motion allowing the drive-in McDonald’s restaurant project in Perkasie Square Shopping Center. Perkasie Borough Council also overrode that veto.

A Chronology of Perkasie Chief Executives

Chief Burgess

1879 – Joseph A. Hendricks

Spring Elections Era

1880 – David H. Bean

1881 – Jacob Smith

1882 – Samuel Althouse

1885 – John Harr

1886 – Josiah Solliday

1889 – Reuben Stout

1890 – Abraham A. Hendricks

1891 – D. Morris Beyer. Chief Burgess now becomes a three-year term.

1894 – Henry O. Moyer

1897 – Henry Scheetz

1900 – Isaiah Barndt

1902 – Frank Knoll (after Barndt resigned)

1903 – William Groover (D) defeats Henry Scheetz by one vote.

1906 – Peter Keller

1909 – Abraham Bean

1910 – Abraham Freed (replaces Bean who died in office, March 1910)

1914 – Samuel Bishop

Modern Elections Era

1917 – Carey Groff defeats Democratic and Socialist candidates. The election switches to November and Chief Burgess becomes four-year term.

1933 – Harleigh M. Apple ends Groff’s four terms as Chief Burgess as the Democrats sweep most Perkasie elections.

1947 – Roy Benner appointed after Chief Burgess Apple dies at the age of 64.

The Herstine Family, 1954

1949 – Walter Herstine wins election, unseating Roy Benner, a Democrat, with a big turnout of Republicans in the Second Ward.

1957 – LeRoy M. Kulp succeeds Herstine, who declined to run for another term.

Mayor

1961 – Kulp wins re-election as the state changes the title of “Chief Burgess” to “Mayor.”

1965 – Mayoral candidate Claude Renner leads a Democratic sweep of Perkasie elections after Kulp declines to run for another term.

1973 – Retired postmaster Lester Trauger, a Democrat, defeats Earl Hunsberger in the mayoral race.

1977 – Republican C. Robert Bergey defeats Franklin Horn after Trauger declines to seek re-election.

1981 – Winfred O. Kulp, former councilman, runs unopposed as the Republican candidate.

1985 – Winfred O. Kulp wins re-election with no opposition from the Democrats.

1987 – Mayor Kulp retires from public service and Borough Council names pharmacist Jay Godshall as his replacement.

1989 – Godshall is elected as the Republican candidate with no opposition and serves for nearly 10 years. Godshall runs unopposed in 1993 and 1997.

1999- After Mayor Godshall retires, Borough Council appoints retired judge Robert Hunsicker to serve the rest of Godshall’s term in office. Hunsicker wins unopposed elections in 2001 and 2005.

2009 – Council appoints retired banking executive John Hollenbach to replace Hunsicker, who resigns for health reasons. Hollenbach wins an unopposed election in November 2009. He also wins unopposed elections in 2013 and 2017 for mayor.

 

 

Pearl Buck’s Lost Historic Speech on Civil Rights

In 1951, author and humanitarian Pearl Buck took a stand against racism after the Washington, D.C, school district banned her from speaking at an all-Black school. The Washington Post and other newspapers published her speech instead, which rings true today now more than ever.

The speech can be found in several textbooks and in online newspaper archives, including the free archives at Chronicling America, a Library of Congress website. But for the most part, it is not widely discussed today.

The national controversy over the speech ban on Pearl Buck

How Perkasie Lost Its First Town Center

A generation before Perkasie’s Great Fire of 1988, the town’s leaders literally bulldozed its first historic area, including the grand home of Perkasie’s founder. Urban Renewal was perhaps Perkasie’s greatest controversy of the 1960s.

After World War II, the mass demolition of older buildings to be replaced with new ones became a national policy after Congress passed the Housing Act of 1949. During the 1950s, Philadelphia started a program of taking the wrecking ball to older neighborhoods considered as “blighted.” However, these areas had been harmed greatly by discriminatory lending policies since the 1930s that led to their disrepair.

The former Perkasie town center in the 1970s.

An Update on the South Perkasie Covered Bridge Project

Last night, I presented an update on the South Perkasie Covered Bridge to the Perkasie Historical Society. I didn’t have prepared notes but here is where the project stands as of October 6, 2021.

As most of you know, the historic 1832 bridge moved mostly off its abutments early on September 2, 2021 in the flooding related to Hurricane Ida.

The Bridge Before the Stabilization Project

A Brief History of Perkasie’s Floods

Perkasie Borough is divided by the Perkiomen Creek’s East Branch and like many towns with a creek, it has an extensive history of flooding.

The Perkasie Central News and the Perkasie News-Herald reported detailed weather accounts, with the Central News featuring more news in the 1930s about weather with reports from Frank Hall, Perkasie’s official “weather observer.” In later years, John A. Moyer and Jim Pritchard assumed that role in an unofficial capacity.

Bystanders rescue a vehicle in 1971 at the Savacool Mill

Perkasie’s Covered Bridge Is A Special Landmark

Today, the South Perkasie Covered Bridge faces another fight for its life after record flooding on September 1, 2021. In the next few weeks, experts will assess the bridge’s condition. Below is a story I wrote in 2019 about our bridge’s special legacy.

Dr. Anderson M. Scruggs liked to send poems to the New York Times, which featured reader submissions in the 1930s. He taught at Atlanta Southern Dental College in Georgia but loved writing poetry about rural life based on his childhood in West Point, Georgia, a small railroad town on the Chattahoochee River.

Scruggs, in particular, loved covered bridges. By 1932, many covered bridges from his childhood were disappearing as Georgia’s state highway department demolished them and built modern steel replacements. That didn’t stop Dr. Anderson from questioning why this was happening.

“Only the country folk, whose careless tread endears a dusty road, can ever know the peaceful, clattering joy of rude planks spread above a drowsy creek that gleams below,” Scruggs wrote. “Yet there are soulless men whose hand and brain tear down what time will never give again.”

Scruggs’ poem soon became popular nationally as other state highway departments were eliminating covered bridges. By 1940, the Harrisburg Sunday Courier publicly questioned Pennsylvania’s strategy of mass covered bridge demolition. Publisher Leon Lowengard reprinted Scruggs’ poem and then told readers that he recalled it as he stood with his grandson at the former site of a covered bridge on the Tuscarora Creek. 

“I suppose its removal was necessary, but I personally am sorry that this and many another old covered bridge like it are being removed. They are so typical early American in this day of turmoil and change that I would like to hang on to them to preserve them, even though it may be necessary to direct traffic over a new and wider bridge at a new site,” Lowengard wrote.  “There is an atmosphere about them that conjures up pictures of peaceful, and perhaps happier, days and quieter ways that may not come this way again.”

The South Perkasie Bridge in 1955

A similar debate was underway in Bucks County just outside Philadelphia in Perkasie, a small Upper Bucks County town much like Scruggs’ West Point, Georgia. In 1938, local residents pressed county officials to repair two covered bridges, including the oldest remaining one in the county: the South Perkasie covered bridge. Instead, the county spared the South Perkasie bridge but demolished Steeley’s covered bridge two miles east of it. A local postman, Andy Schuler, suggested moving the South Perkasie bridge to a newly built Lenape Park to save it from a seemingly unavoidable fate.

A generation later,  Schuler would help lead that effort. At the urging of Perkasie’s Borough Council, the county commissioners in October 1957 condemned Bucks County’s oldest covered bridge. The commissioners gave the Perkasie Historical Society nine months to move the bridge if it desired to preserve it, a seemingly impossible task for a small local group with no funding.

Moving an intact covered bridge for posterity’s sake was a novel idea. Covered bridges had been moved before. Henry Ford bought a covered bridge in 1937 in western Pennsylvania and had it moved to his Greenfield Village museum in Dearborn, Michigan. In 1949, the Shelburne Museum in Vermont moved a bridge onto its grounds. At least three other covered bridges were moved by well-funded private groups or government officials before 1958 nationally. In all of these cases, the bridges were taken apart, shipped to their new homes and reassembled, with little publicity.

The South Perkasie bridge situation was different. Local citizens funded the move, managed by the home-town Historical Society, to preserve the bridge as a “shrine” in Lenape Park. Children went door-to-door seeking donations. Bucks County’s own Planning Commission and the Delaware Valley Protective Association vocally disapproved of the County Commissioners’ threats to demolish the covered bridge if it wasn’t moved. In fact, Protective Association leader Hal Clark lobbied the county commissioners for the extra month needed to get the bridge moved safely. 

The local newspapers and radio covered the controversy for months and local television crews covered the event when the historical society moved the bridge over an eight-day period in August 1958. A photo of the bridge lifted by a crane became the national Associated Press photo of the day on Saturday, August 23, 1958, appearing in newspapers from Oregon to Texas to Georgia.

On the surface, it seemed — as in the mythical covered bridge in Scruggs’ poem — it was the “country folk” of Perkasie who saved the South Perkasie covered bridge from the “soulless men” who condemned it.  

Children witness the bridge’s move in 1958

In hindsight, the fight to save Perkasie’s bridge reflected social and cultural trends building for decades. Locally and nationally, the efforts to save covered bridges from extinction represented a rejection, at least in part, of government policies that preached everything new was good and the old was just a remnant of horse-and-buggy days. The pro-bridge forces also had silent allies who definitely were not country folk and by most accounts were soulless men; they came from Madison Avenue and understood the powerful feelings that covered bridges evoked in the American populace. After World War II, advertisers deployed covered bridge imagery as a symbol of wholesomeness to sell homes, cigarettes, automobiles, whiskey, beer and most importantly, Coca-Cola.

While the Bucks County commissioners won a court decision to condemn the South Perkasie covered bridge, they never had a chance in the court of popular opinion. Covered bridges had become part of American popular culture, partly through the shared memories of people who grew up with them but also through their regular promotion in the arts and mass media.

After the South Perkasie covered bridge relocation in August 1958, the Bucks County commissioners supported covered bridge preservation and embraced the covered bridge as one of the county’s official symbols along with William Penn’s image. Pennsylvania state highway officials, however, were not as gracious with the covered bridges they still owned. They still planned to demolish the two closest covered bridges to Perkasie: Mood’s Bridge and Sheard’s Mill Bridge. However, a new state covered bridge preservation group formed just after the Perkasie bridge move confronted state highway officials, who begrudgingly (and belatedly) fixed the two bridges instead.

Back in August 1959, Hal Clark spoke at the South Perkasie Covered Bridge dedication ceremony, which was attended by local leaders, two county commissioners and a member of the U.S. House of Representatives. “The Perkasie Covered Bridge project helped to bring brought thousands of dollars of favorable publicity to the  Perkasie Community and Bucks County plus an augmented stream of well-paying tourists, “ Clark said. “Fifty years from now the descendants of those who helped preserve this bridge in Lenape Park will bless your memory.”

That memory, Clark said, was “the bridge’s legacy as a ‘kissing bridge,’ a tunnel of love and a good place to save a load of hay on a rainy day. It carried a sign reading “$5 fine for any person riding or driving over this bridge faster than a walk or smoking segars on.’ It was a community center where affairs of state were settled, gossip exchanged and circus posters studied and it was a fine place for the kids to fish in its shade. In one way or another it had a part in the great days in history, the Mexican War, Civil War. elections.”

Dr. Anderson Scruggs could not have written a more fitting description about why people love covered bridges today and why the South Perkasie Covered Bridge could last another 187 years, if people wish for it to happen.

A Pennridge graduate’s role in a civil rights milestone

On August 30, 1963, Pennridge graduate Sara Ann Baker became the subject of national news coverage when Sara and her husband bought a row home near Philadelphia’s airport. Today, few people may know about her experiences over a nearly three-year period in Folcroft, Pa. The Folcroft riots of 1963 along with the 1957 Levittown riots were milestone events in the battle over housing integration in suburban Philadelphia.

Growing Pains for the New Pennridge School District

In part two of a series on the Pennridge School District’s  early history, the period between 1954 and 1967 saw rapid enrollment growth, disputes among board members, and a taxpayer protest as the state forced a complete merger of the Deep Run Valley and Pennridge school boards.

Click here to read Part 1: https://preservingperkasie.com/2021/08/16/creating-the-pennridge-school-district/

While the annual Thanksgiving football game and new high school united the Pennridge community in 1954, it would take another decade for the school district to unify as one entity. Divisions within the Pennridge District Joint Board continued into the 1960s. The Pennridge Joint Board has 40 members (five representatives from each municipality) and some member municipalities had questions about expanding to a unified school board that controlled all levels of public education and taxation.

The Pennridge Joint Board agreement gave any of the eight municipalities a veto on major financial projects related to secondary schools. The first veto came in May 1955, when Bedminster’s school board opposed a major addition to Pennridge Junior High School (the old Sell-Perk High School) to address overcrowded conditions.[i] Bedminster relented when the Joint Board reported that at least 250 new homes had been built in the district in 1955, and emergency expansions were needed for the junior and senior high schools.[ii] The Board authorized the project without state financial support and hired architects Micklewright and Mountford again. The move resulted in tax increases across the entire Pennridge district.

1954 enrollment projections Showed Problems Ahead

Creating the Pennridge School District

Part one of this two-part series looks at the Pennridge School District’s birth in the early 1950s and the event that brought together eight different communities: the first two Pennridge-Quakertown football games.  

Click Here To Read Part II at https://preservingperkasie.com/2021/08/17/running-a-new-school-system/

On March 14, 1949, a crowd packed into the Union Hotel dining room in Perkasie to hear a special guest speaker, Bucks County school superintendent Dr. Charles H. Boehm. Special guests at the Perkasie Chamber of Commerce meeting were representatives from five local school districts.

Boehm was a leading advocate of an effort to consolidate the county’s 51 school boards into a smaller number of school districts. Boehm told the local school leaders that state officials could not force school boards and districts to consolidate, but such moves would be rewarded with state subsidies.[i] As Boehm spoke, he announced recommendations from Bucks County about new school districts for Perkasie’s students and their neighbors.

Architect Micklewright’s concept drawing for the new Pennridge Senior High School