Documenting Oral Histories of Ruth L. Bennett
By Isabel Knight, the Swarthmore College Daily Gazette
April 4, 2016
If you came up to the Language Resource Center on the third floor of Kohlberg the past few weeks, you may have seen a group working in the corner on a video project about Ruth L. Bennett.
This project is part of an initiative by the Scribe Video Center to document precious places around Philadelphia. They partnered with the Chester Housing Authority to create a video about Ruth L. Bennett, who was a prominent member of the Chester community in the early 1900’s and the first president of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) in Chester.
In Chester, there are two places named after her: the Ruth L. Bennett House and the Ruth L. Bennett Homes. The Ruth L. Bennett House is the original house where Bennett took in African Americans looking for shelter during the Great Migration. It will soon be turned into a museum.
The Ruth L. Bennett Homes is the most expansive public housing development in Chester, with over 260 homes. Steve Fischer, the Executive Director of the Chester Housing Authority, said, “There are other housing complexes all over the place named for people who have nothing to do with housing, like William Penn, but I don’t think William Penn was known for taking people into his home. Ruth L. Bennett was.”
There are a number of reasons why the group, composed of about a dozen people in total, is choosing to document Ruth L. Bennett for this project.
Julie Rainbow, the Humanities Facilitator for the project, explained that Philadelphia and Pittsburg have not been as widely documented as other areas that played a large role in the Great Migration, such as Chicago or Harlem.
“What people don’t realize is that during the first wave of the Great Migration, more African-Americans came to the state of Pennsylvania than any other state in the country. So Ruth L. Bennett was a pivotal person in Chester because when people had nowhere to go, she created this house because they were not welcome in many other places,” said Rainbow.
Fischer explained that the life of Ruth L. Bennett in particular is also extremely under-documented. “If you look at the time where she helped people, 1916 and on, that preceded the emergence of public housing in this country. Public housing didn’t even come into existence until the mid to late 30s, so we’re taking a few decades. You had an inundation of people into a new area. For the portion of the population most in distress, the single women and children, public housing or shelter systems […] didn’t exist yet in this country.”
As part of Political Science Professor Ben Berger’s Democratic Theory and Practice class, Paul Vernon ‘16 got the opportunity to intern with the Chester Housing Authority and do research for this project using resources at Swarthmore, even working beyond the period of his official internship.
“Who we choose to remember not only shapes a community’s perception of itself but also intervenes into the political struggles of the present. The life and work of Ruth L. Bennett both powerfully reveal the kind of community Chester can be and also carries an important message about the power of treating migrants and ‘strangers’ with dignity and respect,“ Vernon said.
The group edits the video at Swarthmore because it is much closer to Chester than the Scribe Video Center in Philadelphia. The founder and Executive Director at Scribe, Louis Massiah, also taught at Swarthmore in the past as a visiting lecturer. He recommended the group approach Patricia White, a professor in the Film and Media Studies department, for help with finding a space to edit their videos, who in turn recommended the Language Resource Center.
The video is scheduled to be released on May 17, when a screening will be held at 7:00 p.m. at International House Philadelphia. Incidentally, this is the same day as the official Ruth L. Bennett Day. Those interested in watching the finished product are welcome to attend the screening or go to http://www.scribe.org in June to view the video. There may also be a screening at Swarthmore in the fall.