Monday, August 15, 2011

Unearthing Hattie May Wiatt

Philadelphia is a corrupt place. Or I should say was a corrupt place (ok, is!), as city politics in the second half of the 19th century and first half of the 20th most likely make any of the past decade's shenanigans pale in comparison. One of the most notorious, and yet very much forgotten, examples is the numerous burial grounds which were cleared out of the city in the name of progress. While some had truly fallen into states of sad disrepair, this was often latched upon by corrupt politicians and greedy developers as an excuse to wholesale remove those cemeteries for their own gain. Some ended up being turned into hardly-used playgrounds or failed shopping centers, and yet major Philadelphia landmarks like Pat's & Geno's and Temple University also sit atop what a mere half century ago were cemeteries.

The main focus of my attention has long been the Temple location, formerly known as Monument Cemetery from 1837 until its destruction in 1956. As Philadelphia's second rural cemetery after historic Laurel Hill Cemetery, it was the (not so) final resting spot for numerous notable Philadelphians and home to a large obelisk monument dedicated to Washington and Lafayette from which the cemetery got its name. It is of specific interest to me because it was the burial site of some of my relatives including a great-great-great-grandmother who died in 1915. At that point the cemetery was already past its prime and over the following decades it languished mostly neglected and ignored. As its Broad Street neighbor Temple University continued to grow it was hungry to expand, and this eyesore cemetery was the perfect opportunity for it. As was routine by now, Temple got the politicians involved who paved the way for the cemetery to be condemned. While it wasn't the most shameful of the cemetery closures (that would be the city's Lafayette Cemetery, whose movement ended with some of the bodies dumped in a creek), the treatment of Monument was no less scandalous in other ways. While the bodies were exhumed and removed to unmarked graves at Lawnview Cemetery outside the city, the many ornamental monuments were criminally dumped into the Delaware River to act as a foundation for the Betsy Ross Bridge (Don't believe me? See The Cemetery Traveler blog's recounting of his visit to this creepy site along the Delaware).

What I find most disturbing of all, is that one of the graves which were violated was one who could be called the very founder of Temple University. And no, I don't mean Russell Conwell, the official founder of Temple who grew the school out of his Broad Street church (and yes, his body was moved from Monument when it was closed onto a memorial garden on campus). What I mean is a little girl in his Sunday School, Hattie May Wiatt, who in essence was the spark which made it all happen. You see, around 1883 Hattie May could not attend Sunday School most weeks because the room at church was too small. Finding Hattie outside one Sunday, Conwell brought her inside and cheered her up by saying hopefully one day a bigger building would be built to fit all the children. Hearing this, Hattie resolved to save her pennies to make this happen. When she died not long after, the victim of diphtheria at just age 5, a small purse was found under her pillow containing the 57 cents she had saved. At her funeral, her mother gave the money to Conwell, which he took to the church and, telling her story, announced it as the first gift towards the new Sunday School building. He changed the money into pennies which he offered for sale, bringing in $250 and most pennies returned to him. The movement took off, and inspired by Hattie May's generosity, the congregation not only built a bigger Sunday School but an entire new church. The "Wiatt Mite Society" named for her managed to raise the money against all odds and the church was built right on Broad Street. Hattie's pennies were accepted as the first down payment on the property, and though it was still called Grace Baptist Church, this new church also became known as The Temple. It was out of this church, bought with Hattie's pennies, that Temple University grew, along with hospitals and other institutions. Conwell declared that this congregation of thousands was born out of Hattie May's small investment. He said "she is happy on high with the thought that her life was so full, that it was so complete, that she lived really to be so old in the influences she threw upon this earth."

A forgotten part of of Hattie May's story which makes it even more tragic that I uncovered from the cemetery record is that her baby sister Annie died just five days after her of the same disease. This extra detail makes an already tragic story even more unthinkably so for her family, but somehow was completely forgotten as the story was passed down. Also neglected was Hattie and Annie's grave, which when it was dug up to be moved did not get any special treatment as Conwell's did. Their grave had already been moved once within Monument Cemetery by the family in 1904, and two years later their maternal grandmother was buried with them. When Monument closed in 1956, their remains were moved to a mass grave at Lawnview Cemetery. While Hattie's original grave marker might have been sent to the bottom of the Delaware like the rest of Monument's, Hattie was fortunate in a way because someone saw to it that her new grave in Rockledge outside the city limits was marked to some degree. A small brass plaque was placed on her grave and a limited number of others, though it says nothing except the last name of those buried below. Hattie's happens to say "Ball", as it was her grandmother's last name. So while her grave isn't marked with her own name, it is marked... or is it?

The destruction of Monument Cemetery began with its highest pinnacle

I took a visit out to the Monument mass grave at Lawnview, and found that almost all of these brass plaques have sunk completely below the soil level over the past 50 years. One wouldn't know a single person is buried there, as it appears to be nothing but an open grassy field. What is the use of having one's grave marked if the marker is completely underground? Hattie is buried in the Susquehanna Lawn, Section 76, Grave 7. After some advice from a groundskeeper and surveying of the site on my own, I learned that the lower the grave number the closer it is to the fence where Lawnview runs up against neighboring Montefiore Cemetery. Each section is actually a row, the number of each is indicated by stones which are now mostly buried too. Through a mixture of digging up section markers and some counting, I determined the approximate location of Section 76 and walked it down to the fence. While there were no visible markers in the immediate area except for a recently placed one dedicated to celebrated Civil War nurse Anna Maria Ross, I got the idea to just start thrusting my shovel into the ground. I started hitting markers deep below the surface and dug them up one by one until I was greeted with the dirt-encrusted outline of a B, followed by an A and L. Soon I had totally uncovered the Ball plaque and knew I had just found the forgotten grave of Hattie May Wiatt, apparently I was the first to do so in years if not decades.

I have to ask, why has a little girl with a tragic story who still managed to change the face of North Philadelphia, been allowed to lie so ignored and forgotten? Temple University owes its very existence to her, and yet I had to dig up a plaque which doesn't even contain her name from deep under the soil. The Ball plaque is now exposed once more, but it seems it is only a matter of time until it is reclaimed by the earth. Doesn't Hattie May deserve something more fitting? I hope that with this blog post at least her story can be told, one of triumph out of tragedy if there ever was one, and that perhaps Temple University will come across it and realize what injustice they have shown to their adolescent foundress. After all wasn't it Ben Franklin, namesake of yet another defiled Philadelphia cemetery, who said: "Show me your cemeteries and I will tell you what kind of people you have"..
The end?

Saturday, May 14, 2011

Did Azerbaijan Deserve to Win Eurovision?

From a musical perspective, many commenters on Twitter seem to think no, and I have to agree but admit it is a catchy song. But does the nation of Azerbaijan deserve to host Eurovision 2012? The answer to that is hell no. Lest you think this is sour Armenian grapes, which didn't get into the finals for the first time ever, well I'm mad at it for its extremely weak choice of song and saw its impending failure a mile away. What I'm talking about here though is Azerbaijan's downright ignominious Eurovision history since it joined in 2008.

For those who didn't know, Azerbaijan's 2009 Eurovision behavior started raising eyebrows immediately after it aired and the drama continued well into 2010. Those who saw the Azeri Eurovision stream noticed that the number to call Armenia was not showed as it was with all the other countries. This wasn't a huge hurdle to voting, because they were in a numerical order so it was easy to determine what number was for Armenia- but not showing the number to vote for Armenia was of course a breach of the rules. Lebanon was famously kicked out of Eurovision a few years before for not being able to affirm that it would air Israel's performance on its broadcast.

That was tame compared to the bizarre circus which followed though. As the BBC reported, a number of the 43 Azeris who did manage to cast a vote for Armenia despite the number being obscured were met with knocks on their door from the authorities. That's right, all because they voted for Armenia in what is almost universally lambasted as a ridiculous continental sideshow, citizens of Azerbaijan were accused of being "unpatriotic and a potential security threat" for their vote in the contest. Not denying what happened, "the Azerbaijani authorities said people had merely been invited to explain why they voted for Armenia", not intimidating or scary at all right? The article notes "Civil rights campaigners say freedom of expression is increasingly suppressed in Azerbaijan under the presidency of Ilham Aliyev", who now two years later has been seeing the biggest protests yet against his rule as a general authoritarian despot without a taste for dissent.

I also admit having no idea who "French-Syrian businessman Omar Harfouch" is, but according to this article from "The Eurovision Times" (umm that exists?) he accused Azerbaijan of cheating even worse than all that:

Azerbijan exerted pressure on jurors of several countries, paying bribes through Azerbaijani embassies in these countries. He also stated earlier that Azerbaijan had sent money to its embassies so the personal could vote for their country and influence the televote espacially in smaller countries. According to Omar Harfouch, the bribes total sum amounted to $20 million.

As I said I don't know who he is, and cannot indict Azerbaijan on the claim of one person, but it does seem to match their over-the-top Eurovision fervor. That's the worst part about all these post-Soviet countries who have joined recently, they aren't so much "in" on the Eurovision joke amongst the old guard and treat it like its the Olympics. Armenia does this to a degree as well, but Azerbaijan is by far the worst offender of conflating national power and pride with ones ranking at Eurovision. If anyone would take it serious enough to funnel its oil millions to Eurovision judges, it would likely be Azerbaijan.

What will be interesting is to see how Azerbaijan will fare with the challenge of hosting an international competition. I don't know the number of hotel rooms in Baku, but one would have to assume they will need a lot more to accommodate the influx for Eurovision. It has used its oil wealth to fuel a building boom which means it would certainly be in a better position than Armenia to meet the demand, but that is far from a guarantee that it actually can. Perhaps it will take a break from its multi-billion dollar 'defense' budget aimed at resuming war with Armenia for such a purpose? Is it too bold to suggest that winning Eurovision means the NK conflict won't be able to heat up at least another year as Azerbaijan preps for the European spotlight?

What is most interesting however is the outstanding question of Armenia. After all, in 2004 NATO exercises which were supposed to be held in Azerbaijan were canceled due to Azerbaijan refusing to allow the participation of the Armenian delegation. It was the first time these exercises ever had to be canceled and caused strain on the Azeri-NATO relationship. Azerbaijan has a well-known "no Armenian" policy within its borders, whether it regards the ancient Julfa Armenian khachkar cemetery it was videotaped destroying in the past decade, Armenian sports players (even members of third-party nations who are of Armenian descent), and just regular Armenians wherever they might be from who request a visa to visit. Foreign travelers to Azerbaijan often return with confusing stories about having the Armenia section of their Lonely Planet travel guide ripped out before being allowed to enter. I do think in the past year there was finally an officially sanctioned Armenian sports team who was able to attend a competition held in Baku, but on the whole it is clear Azerbaijan's attitude towards Armenians anywhere within its borders is chilling.

It's hard to say what will come next, but I am hoping there isn't a repeat of Georgia's boycott to perform in Russia. Armenia should seek to perform in Azerbaijan like all other countries come what may. Instead of preemptively refusing to participate, it should seek to and let Azerbaijan sort it out. If it wants to refuse Armenian participation as it usually does then it will have to pay the price, which is why I highly doubt we'd see a repeat of such behavior from Azerbaijan. Hopefully everyone can sober up and treat each other like humans, but Eurovision will definitely require extraordinary protection for any Armenian participant like it hasn't seen for a long time. It'd really be ashame for Armenia to miss out on Eurovision, regardless of where it is held, (that is unless it tries to be represented by a song like Boom Boom again!) We'll see what happens...