The house museum, Cliveden, hosted Mt. Airy author and activist Kimberly Kamara, Thursday Jan. 21, for a discussion that asked whether the site’s signature event should change in the context of urban gun violence.
The house museum, Cliveden, hosted Mt. Airy author and activist Kimberly Kamara, Thursday Jan. 21, for a discussion that asked whether the site’s signature event, the Revolutionary-era Battle of Germantown reenactment, should change in the context of urban gun violence.
The community Zoom event was part of Cliveden’s ongoing program, “Considering Re-enactments: The Battle of Germantown in the Light of 21st–Century Gun Violence,” funded by grants from The Pew Center for Arts & Heritage.
Kamara’s son, 23-year-old Mt. Airy resident Niam Kairi Johnson was shot and killed in Germantown the night of the Fourth of July, 2017. He was on his way to visit his infant son.
Since that horrific night, Kamara has been working both to solve her son’s murder by reminding police detectives faithfully each month that justice still has not been served and to bring people together who have been shaken by similar losses.
“These shooters strategically plan murders and shootings around holidays and the festivals because they know people are not paying attention,” Kamara explained to the participants. “The noises from the festivals and all.”
Last year 499 people were killed by gun violence in Philadelphia and more than four times that many were wounded, according to the Inquirer. A map of these shootings compiled by the City Controller’s Office makes Germantown and parts of East Mt. Airy look like a war zone. In 2020, six fatalities and 11 non-fatal shootings occurred in the blocks surrounding Cliveden alone. A man was gunned down less than a block from Cliveden’s rear entrance. In 2019, another man was shot and killed less than 300 feet away. The victims are overwhelmingly young black men. As of this writing, city figures for gun violence in 2021 were three percent higher compared to the same time last year.
But Kamara’s point was not that reenactments featuring gun violence contribute to the shootings. Rather, she said places like Cliveden need to listen to people who are scarred by shootings to inform and improve what they do.
“I think that we, as a community, because of the gun violence, the opioid epidemic, murders—I think it’s time for healing,” she said. “I think it’s time for people to realize that they are not by themselves.” And Cliveden’s signature event could play a bigger role in this healing, she said.
Cliveden is open to the idea.
“The battle [of Germantown Reenactment] relates to a number contemporary topics and trends that are a significant part of today’s public discourse,” said Rosalyn McPherson, of the Roz Group, who facilitated the event. “And we know that there are some people who have indicated that they have concerns about the gunshots or that the gunshots traumatize.”
The Battle of Germantown in 1777, on the grounds of Cliveden, was a key moment in the Revolutionary War. A loss for the Americans, which sent them in retreat. But it hardened them, and helped to set the stage for Washington’s return, after a cold winter at Valley Forge, and the eventual re-taking of the city of Philadelphia, then the nation’s capital.
It was an important moment. And it was then, and is each year the first weekend in October, very loud with gun and cannon-fire.
Everyone who spoke at the Jan. 21 event acknowledged the educational value of the reenactments, but many also thought there was more work to do.
South Philadelphia resident, Aleida Garcia, explained that she lost her teenaged son to gun violence in 2015. Yet, as a history buff, she had mixed feelings.
“Although I admire the reenactments and the uniforms and all, I think it’s the gunshots, the amount of it too, that makes us cringe. I would have to leave,” she said. And she questioned whether a big event devoted to that one moment was really doing history justice.
“What are we actually celebrating? What are we remembering? Are we remembering the shooting and the killing or are we remembering something more important about the Revolution?”
Miles Orion Butler, a Germantown resident, asked a similar question. “How else can we use the resources and excitement… around celebrating warfare and instead celebrate humanity and something different than bloodshed?”
But reenactors Mark Kryza and William McIlhenny, who both perform each year at the event, stressed their beliefs that things should be left unchanged.
“I understand about the street violence,” Kryza said. “I’m well aware of it. However, this event has been known within the neighborhood for over 45 years, and I personally think most of the people in the neighborhood are well aware of what this is all about. This is a safe event. It’s an organized event. And it has nothing to do with random street violence.”
McIlhenny had a similar message.
“I don’t like hearing that any part of Philadelphia or the United States is part of a problem of gun violence, etcetera,” he said. “But the reenactment is separate. And what re-enactors do and what I have done for 45 years of my life is to educate people.”
He suggested that local residents should prepare better for the loud noises of the first weekend in October.
“Don’t fear it. Don’t fear it,” he said. “Learn about your history. We are all part of this crazy melting pot.”
Cornelia Swinson, executive director of the Johnson House, a historic house less than a block from Cliveden, which had operated as an Underground Railroad site at a time when the original residents of Cliveden held enslaved Africans, suggested that there was a bigger story that needed telling.
For example, on the same historic day, soldiers ransacked the Johnson’s home while the family refused to fight because they were pacifists. She said these kinds of details are indicative of social forces that are still largely at play today.
“What we learn from that is there are always issues that we have to work on together as a community,” she said. “This is an event that happens once a year, but what I hear in this conversation is a larger issue of gun violence, and how it’s traumatizing to many in the community. So my question is, does Cliveden want to [deal with] that?”
Over the last year, Cliveden hosted three other community meetings in conjunction with two local partners, The Germantown Espresso Bar and Project Learn School. They discussed the Second Amendment’s roots in the Revolution with Temple History Professor, Dr. Jessica Roney, the history of gun-related laws with Jacob Charles of the Center for Firearms at Duke University, and the experiences of black Revolutionary War soldiers with Noah Lewis, a black re-enactor.
Cliveden will present its findings from all this work Feb. 17 at 7 p.m. in a community town hall.