In honor of Black History month, we sat down with local historian Dr. Sam Lemon, author of “Go Stand Upon the Rock” a novel based on his family history handed down to him by his maternal grandmother Maud Ray Ridley Ortiga, the granddaughter of former runaway slaves. We spoke with Sam about the history of the Black community in Media, his novel, and how Black history has impacted the Media Borough community today.
African Americans have lived in Media since before revolutionary times. Some of the ancestors of the current African American community arrived in the 1820s and 30s, decades before the civil war. Within Media, there were small pockets of free Blacks and some of these folks were among the founders of the Campbell AME Church that is currently located on 3rd and Olive Street today. Built in 1922, members of the Campbell AME Church had previously held church services in the basement of the Old Media High School, and met in members’ homes, going back to the mid-1800s.
The next wave of African Americans came during or shortly after the Civil War. One individual in particular, Jordan Cavener, a former US soldier, became a prominent businessman in the Borough. Owning multiple businesses, he was a shoemaker, a property manager and property owner; he also had a lawn service. A jack of all trades, when he passed away he left $75,000 in his name, equivalent to what would be over $2 million dollars today. You can view his obituary on the left.
De facto segregation continued in Media until the 1960s. There were still pockets of people of color around town, in particular, North Media where Sam’s ancestors were located. His ancestors have been on Olive Street since 1872. There were other neighborhoods of Black communities in North Media, South Media, and Brooke Street where people lived and were very productive and energetic. Many of those families were leading sports athletes in Media High School. Below is a map of Media in 1909. You can view the properties of Jordan Cavener and Sam’s ancestor, Cornelius Ridley near 3rd and Olive St.
Institutional and systemic racism was still present in Media. Certain restaurants on State Street would not allow Black residents to dine at their establishments. For example, in 1944 two Black women and a baby were denied service at a restaurant in town. Two white women who witnessed this discrimination invited them to a different restaurant where they were all served. This was the event that originated the Media Fellowship House. There was a community of Quakers within Media which worked with persons of color to advocate for equal rights in the town.
The Black community has had a tremendous impact on Media to this day. Not only has Media been the home of a Black dentist, doctor, educators and a Black judge – Hon. Nathaniel Nichols, it has had folks who have been cornerstones of Media and have set excellent examples for others to follow. For example, Sam’s great-grandfather William H. Ridley, Esq (pictured on the left) was the first Black attorney admitted to the Delaware County Bar in 1891. He was an 1887 graduate of Media High School. In addition to these accomplishments, there are the historic contributions and presence of three Black churches founded here in Media- in addition to the Campbell AME Church and Trinity UAME which was founded in 1895.
More recently, on November 6th, Media Borough Council and the Heritage Park planning committee held a dedication ceremony at Media’s newest open space area, Heritage Park, located at 5th and Broomall Streets. The park celebrates the life, times, history, and contributions of members of the Black Community who have helped to make Media what it is today. Over 100 people attended a ceremony to celebrate the dedication of the new Heritage Park and to celebrate the contributions of the Black community. You can see pictures of the park below.
The roots of the Black community have deepened down many decades with persons of color being elected to council and establishing themselves as business entrepreneurs in the Borough. The local Black experience is a rich part of the history and environment of Media Borough.
Sam reminds us that what we think of as “history” is not the ancient past. The time of legalized slavery and the Civil Rights Movement occurred not that long ago, given the span of American history. The Black community’s story is not just Black history, but our shared American history. “To honor Black history month, it is important to teach it truly and work together for progress in our country. It is important to acknowledge the past and try not to repeat those mistakes in the present.” In the end, diversity enriches us all and makes us and our communities better.
Picture credits: Samuel Lemon and Linda Rooney