Philadelphia’s got a raft of National Historic Landmarks, the crème de la crème of historic sites. The list is long here: 65 in all, from Independence Hall to Eastern State Penitentiary to the John Coltrane House. And it would have been longer had the National Park Service let stand their original, 1974 ruling in favor of the Musical Fund Hall. But they didn’t, and it isn’t. In 1989, shortly after developers converted the hall’s auditorium into condominiums, the feds withdrew the coveted designation. In America’s most historic city, the Musical Fund Hall is the only site to hold such a dubious distinction.
No matter. Violated or not, this building stands as a genuine American site of conscience, and that’s something that can’t be taken away. Sure, the building was home to one of the nation’s earliest musical organizations and the preferred performance venue of soloists including Jenny Lind (“The Swedish Nightingale”), lecturers including Charles Dickens and political events including the first Republican National Convention. Maybe we’ve been spoiled, jaded even: in a city chock full of the past, this seems like everyday history. What makes us want to take a good, hard, second look at the Musical Fund Hall is an account revealed by Scott Gac in a book entitled Singing for Freedom: The Hutchinson Family Singers and the Nineteenth-Century Culture of Reform.
The New Hampshire -based Hutchinson Family performed 12,000 concerts across the United States and abroad, effectively morphing abolitionism into popular culture. In their concerts, the Hutchinson’s performed original and provocative songs, including Get Off The Track of 1844 which warns: “Jump for your lives! Politicians, / From your dangerous false positions.” (Listen here.) Wherever they went, the Hutchinsons attracted a large following, and an interracial one.
Three years after their first popular performances in Philadelphia and a few months after their successful tour in England (with their friend Frederick Douglass) the Hutchinsons returned in the Spring of 1847. After several performances before “amalgamated” audiences at the Musical Fund Hall, Philadelphia Mayor John Swift stepped in and demanded the singing stop. (This is the same Mayor Swift who was unable, or perhaps unwilling, to stop rioters who destroyed the Abolitionist’s new Pennsylvania Hall in 1838.) Swift assured Musical Fund Hall management that more shows would certainly result in rioting there, too. Starting immediately, the Hutchinsons (and all future lessees) had to agree to two conditions: “That no Anti-Slavery lecture shall be delivered” and” That no colored person may form a portion of any audience.”
Silence followed. No riot. No performance. “The Hutchinson Family Singers refused to play for white patrons alone,” writes Gac. Never again would America’s original group of protest singers hear applause in the City of Brotherly Love. Never again would Philadelphians hear the Hutchinsons’ sing:”Men of various predilections, / Frightened, run in all directions / Merchants, Editors, Physicians, / Lawyers, Priests and Politicians. / Get Out of the Way! Get Out of the Way! / Get Out of the Way! Every station / Clear the track of ‘mancipation.“
But a dozen years before the Civil War and 15 years before Black and White together, fifteen years before the Emancipation Proclamation, Philadelphians did hear, and rejoice in these prophetic lines – at the Musical Fund Hall.