Black business pioneer honored in Germantown


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Over 100 years ago, a Victorian building in Germantown was the bustling seat of one of the country’s richest black entrepreneurs.

John S. Trower, born before slavery ended, moved to Philadelphia and established his business in the late 19th century, serving customers across the region and securing contracts with major shipbuilders.

Perhaps just as important, he contributed a portion of his fortune to churches, schools, and financial institutions in the African American community.

A small crowd gathered on Sunday outside the former Trower catering business – a two-tone blue property currently operating as Crab House on Germantown Avenue between Chelten Avenue and Vernon Park.

They dedicated a Pennsylvania Blue Historic Marker, a project that took years.

In 2017, the Germantown United Community Development Corporation received a grant to help restore the facade of the building. That same year, the state historical commission approved a marker request.

It’s up to the applicant or building owner to pay for the signs, and last year a handful of neighborhood groups formed a committee to raise funds.

The markers cost more than $ 1,600, with additional installation costs, according to the Pennsylvania Historical & Museum Commission.

The Trower Building was also added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places last month, meaning it cannot be demolished or significantly altered without prior approval.

“My love for Germantown, its built environment and its diverse heritage naturally led me to Trower,” said Oscar Beisert, of the Keeping Society of Philadelphia, who filed the papers for the historic register and marker.

“With one of the largest black populations in the country today and historically, Philadelphia has enormous cultural resources linked to African-American heritage,” he added. “Yet far too many have been reduced to rubble and are represented by what almost looks like blue gravestones. “

Oscar Beisert of the Keeping Society of Philadelphia lobbied for Trower to be recognized.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

Trower was born into a free black farming family in 1849 in Virginia. After paying for his mother’s house, he moved to Baltimore, where he found work shelling oysters, according to information provided by Historic Germantown.

He emigrated to Philadelphia in the 1870s, first opening a restaurant business on Chelten Avenue. Several years later he purchased the Germantown Avenue building, which was constructed in 1869 to serve as a bank.

Trower’s big break came when the William Cramp & Sons Shipbuilding Company hired his company to provide a catering service.

During Trower’s heyday, the facility was outfitted with a 150-seat dining room, large bakery, and ice cream factory, according to a chapter on Trower in Booker T. Washington’s book. “The Negro in Business”.

Food and beverage service was one of the few industries open to black businessmen in Trower’s day, and even so it did not serve clients of color, historical research from Germantown has revealed.

He also had an interest in real estate, owning several properties in Germantown and Ocean City, New Jersey.

Trower funded a few churches, including the construction of the first Philadelphia African Baptist Church in South Philadelphia, and helped purchase land for the Downingtown Industrial and Agricultural School in Chester County.

He also guaranteed mortgages for black families and was a leader in a community building and loan association.

Supreme Divine-Dow, executive director of the Black Writers Museum, unveils a plaque outside the Trower building in Germantown on Sunday.PHOTO: Jack Tomczuk

“I think the fact that he gave so much back and did so much good with his success was really a mark of what kind of a person he was,” said Paul Trower, the caterer’s great-grandson, one of his descendants. who witnessed the designation of historical marker.

Supreme Divine-Dow, executive director of the nearby Black Writers Museum, sees Trower as an inspiration and has said he operates on the principles of faith, education, entrepreneurship and business.

“He’s faced obstacles that we can’t even imagine,” Divine-Dow said. “In the face of daily lynchings, in the face of terrorism imposed on blacks. He continued to prosper. “

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