Op-ed: History should be fun, accessible and accurate

Historian Jack McCarthy responds to the King’s Highway Foundation.

In his opinion: Jack McCarthy says the historic bus tour offered by Jason Sherman’s King’s Highway Foundation misrepresents historical facts. TIMES FILE PHOTO

By Jack McCarthy

As a longtime Northeast Philadelphia historian, I feel compelled to respond to the cover story in the May 2 edition of the Northeast Times about the historic bus tour offered recently by Jason Sherman’s King’s Highway Foundation. Jason has done much in recent years to bring greater awareness to Northeast Philadelphia history and that is all to the good. However, he is not a historian and much of what he says about our local history is flat-out wrong. I have watched or listened with dismay on many occasions as Jason has misrepresented historical facts, but have refrained from speaking up. Now that his history activities are increasing and he is becoming the public face of Northeast Philadelphia history, it is time to hold him to account.

Case in point, this statement by Jason in the May 2 article: “The continental congress met [at the Jolly Post Inn in Frankford] in secret to decide who would write the Declaration of Independence.” There are literally three things wrong in this one sentence. First, the continental congress did not meet at the Jolly Post; a small group of delegates from Massachusetts and Pennsylvania met in Frankford in late August or early September 1774 to discuss strategy in advance of the first continental congress. Second, the decision to draft a Declaration of Independence would not be made until the second continental congress in June 1776 — almost two years after the meeting in Frankford; there was no way those at the Frankford meeting were discussing who would write a document that hadn’t even been envisioned yet. Third, while we know the meeting was in Frankford, there is no proof that it was at the Jolly Post. The Jolly Post was the most prominent tavern in Frankford at the time, so it is very possible the meeting occurred there, but we do not know that. Yes, an important meeting occurred in Frankford in 1774 that helped shape the course of the American Revolution, but Jason has distorted the facts around the event.

Likewise, there are a number of mistakes in his film The King’s Highway. As someone who appears frequently in the film, I was given an advance “director’s cut” with the assurance that any mistakes I noticed would be corrected in the final version. I watched the director’s cut several times, made note of a number of mistakes, and forwarded them to Jason. None of these corrections were made; all the mistakes remained in the final version of the film.

Here is one such inaccuracy: in one of my interview sessions for the film, I was discussing how Northeast Philadelphia was primed for massive development in the 1920s, but that growth was thwarted by the Great Depression and World War II in the 1930s and early 1940s, and it was not until the post-World War II period that the Northeast underwent major development. At one point, I said that in the 1920s, “the Northeast was about to explode.” In the film, that quote is used in a section focusing on the early 19th century, implying that the Northeast was about to explode with development in the early 1800s. This is preposterous; the Northeast was mostly rural farmland in the early 1800s and would remain so for well over a century. Alas, my request to correct this and other mistakes was ignored.

True historians — and there are many in Northeast Philadelphia — view their work as almost a sacred trust. They spend countless hours researching in primary and secondary sources to ensure that the history they present is correct. It is disheartening to such historians to see someone who has positioned himself as the face of Northeast Philadelphia history be so cavalier with the facts. Yes, history should be fun and accessible, but it must also be accurate.

I am president of a small nonprofit, the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History. FNPEH acquires and preserves historical collections, publishes books, holds history events, and sponsors the monthly meetings of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network, where local historians give presentations that are free and open to the public. Like Jason Sherman, we also work to promote greater awareness and appreciation of Northeast Philadelphia history, but we’ve been doing it for much longer and everything we do is based on solid research and a commitment to historical accuracy.

I applaud Jason Sherman on his efforts to promote local history and preserve historic structures, but I call on him to adhere to a much higher standard in how he presents history to the public. ••

Jack McCarthy is a professional archivist and historian, co-founder of the Northeast Philadelphia History Network and president of the Friends of Northeast Philadelphia History.