Jacqueline Wiggins, Cofounder, Victoria Best, Vice President and Deborah Gary, President of SPPAAA during a cleanup. (Photo by Hannah Wallace)

The Society for Preserving Philadelphia African American Assets (SPPAAA) aims to educate, advocate for, and raise awareness of significant places and spaces in Philadelphia’s Black history.

Deborah Gary has been running businesses for years and engaging with volunteer and civic organizations wherever she resides. DHEx Enterprises, her business hub, is the home of her retail shop. It also includes her love of education and history and provides services like webinars, historical walking tours, and traveling historical exhibitions. Her self-professed love of real estate and history led to her founding the Society to Preserve Philadelphia African American Assets (SPPAAA). 

She created SPPAAA in 2022 after becoming frustrated with the lack of support for places of African American significance in Philadelphia. 

“So I was like, okay, I can’t save the city, but let me try to at least save some of the properties that have historic significance. So SPPAAA is trying to help identify all these properties because they may not all say something that with a historic marker, they could just be the house next door,” said Gary.

Gary grew up in North Philly and traveled in and outside the country in the military and life. Wherever she went, she always looked for Black newspapers, museums, institutions, and other places of significance to the Black community. When she got back to Philly in 2008, she saw, from her perspective, “how the city was being destroyed.” 

She explained: “All of these investors have come from everywhere else and [do] not really know or care about the significance of Philadelphia, as well as our own people not knowing or caring about the significance of Philadelphia. Then you see buildings that represent our history just being purchased and demolished.”

Gary said she saw the effect of gentrification. She also noticed elders leaving their property to the younger people in their family, and sometimes, the new owners could not handle the costs to maintain properties that may have had historical significance to Black families and communities in Philadelphia. 

Bearing witness to these things, Gary knew she wanted to create an organization that would educate, raise awareness, and advocate for significant places for African Americans in Philadelphia. 

One of their partnerships is with the Preservation Alliance of Greater Philadelphia. According to executive director Paul Steinke, the Alliance is a member-supported advocacy and education organization for historic preservation in Philadelphia and the surrounding counties.

One of the first items Gary was interested in was the Alliance’s historic inventory of African American Heritage sites compiled by the organization. She immediately saw a need to fill in the missing gaps in important places. She also wanted to supplement the list with actual descriptions of why these places and things were important and what they actually were in the city’s history and African American culture. 

Jacqueline Wiggins, a former educator and the co-founder of SPPAAA, loves the educational aspect of SPPAAA’s work.

“The fact [is] that as Deborah is creating the list and as we’re looking at educating people around preservation, [and sending the message] to really look at your neighborhood,” said Wiggins. 

She continued: “There can always be a complaint about something, but what will it take to do the preservation that’s necessary? Do you need a historic designation? Do you need more assistance with understanding historic preservation, and what do you need to know about the historical commission?”

SPPAAA is also partnering with Preservation Alliance for a grant they were awarded to work on the Byberry Township African American Burial Ground

SPPAAA became aware of the grounds in the far, far northeast of Philadelphia, where a group of Quakers set up a burial ground for Black folks in the 1780s. Together with Steinke and his team, they have set up an interpretation and preservation plan for the area. They are also ensuring that the grounds get signage and a memorial and researching who may be buried there. 

Dr. Ifetayo Flannery, Temple University Professor of Africology gives initial land blessing in November 2023. (Photo by Deborah Gary)

“We, along with SPPAAA, coordinated several community cleanups last year to clear away some of the brush and the trash and the debris and market with at least a temporary sign,” said Steinke. “And our ultimate goal is to work with the state Department of Community and Natural Resources, the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, to transfer ownership and stewardship of the burial ground to the state because there is an adjacent state park called Benjamin Rush State Park.”

SPPAAA and the Preservation Alliance are also pursuing other projects and grants. One is the “Sankofa Pass,” which allows folks to explore African American museums and sites throughout the city, with discounts and gifts included. Places like the ACES Veterans Museum, Johnson House Historic Site, Lest We Forget Museum of Slavery, and the Colored Girls Museum are some Northwest places included in the list that will extend throughout the city. 

“We’re a small group but mighty in our passion, I think,” said Wiggins. 

She credits Gary with her tenacity and get-it-done attitude when it comes to preservation. Gary and SPPAAA are currently working with the Friends of  Henry Ossawa Tanner House, including community leaders and creatives like George A. Morton, Tyler A. Ray, Judith Robinson, and Christopher R. Rogers in North Central Philly. But they’re also looking at Northwest Philadelphia properties and other Civil Rights sites to preserve and memorialize.

To learn more about SPPAAA’s work, you can follow them on Facebook, where they post their most recent projects and information they are following about preservation and memorializing.