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November 26 , 2010

Penllyn Village: Lest We Forget

A History and Personal Memories of a Black Settlement in Lower Gwynnedd Township in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania


This book is written especially to honor the residents in a small black community whose time as a totally black community may be ending. . Not all Black Americans have lived in the urban areas of this country; not a better life, but different. It is hoped that any who read this book would see that the hopes, dreams, and life styles of many Black Americans are no different than those of other Americans. This story is about such people. Just beyond the Bethlehem Baptist Church on the corner of Penllyn-Blue Bell Pike and Trewellyn Avenue, in the village of Penllyn, Lower Gwynedd Township, in Montgomery County, Pennsylvania, rests a predominantly black settlement. The people who founded the church are the same people who established a firm foundation for the community. But there is something more to the church and residents whose presence there dates back 120 years. The author’s purpose is to document their presence before their rich history is swept away by changing demographics. The book’s focus is on the black immigrants from Virginia who were recruited from the farmlands of Westmoreland County, Virginia to those in Gywnedd and surrounding areas in Pennsylvania. There is a brief acknowledgment of the settlement of the Welsh and other Eastern and Southern Europeans, as well as the aristocracy, who came before. Also noted are the ties to the Revolutionary War and structures that could be considered as historic sites still remaining in the village. A review of their southern roots was important to understanding the residents’ success in their new home. They had strong ties to their families and skills already gained back home. Some came to make enough money to send home to buy the farmland back in Virginia that their forefathers had farmed under the yoke of slavery. Some succeeded and returned home. Others remained to find work in the mills, and estates of the wealthy; some were able to start small businesses of their own. Their settlement began with a prayer group of nineteen people that met in a home in Springhouse, PA, in 1885. Told from the perspective of the elders in the community the expanding group had already become a community in faith and spirit if not in residence. In 1888, having outgrown their meeting site they established a church in Penllyn Village, and the first black resident moved into the village. When malicious arson caused that church to burn down, they built another. For the greater part of 120 years the church was their anchor. It is continually illustrated that the early church leadership encouraged them in developing business acumen, political savvy, and artistic talents. Two major land investments established the village as a black community. The first was the purchase of a block of land by young black entrepreneurs in the early 1900s. It was during that time one sees the development of businesses and self-sufficiency that held their community together. The second and most challenging occurred in 1947, when they were able to develop, what is believed to be the first Black corporation in the state of Pennsylvania, in order to buy the Pershing estate. The Penllyn Home builders Association, Inc., sold stock for fifty dollars a share and bought the 40-acre estate. As a result 50 more black owned homes were added to the community. A discussion of their social and recreational activities from the early 1900s on, are what has been observe in American culture throughout that same time span. Simple church picnics, hometown roller rinks, the ice cream parlor, the old swimming hole are typical hometown entertainments of decades past. There is an array of musical talent of an unusual proportion in such a small population, ranging from instrumental, and singing to, contemporary jazz bands. You will note that the residents have never shirked their civic duty. Since the 1930s and 1940s and currently, they have been actively involved in all aspects of the political spectrum from consis
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