Op-ed: When it comes to history, actions speak louder

Local filmmaker Jason Sherman explains the importance of history in Northeast Philadelphia.

In his opinion: Jason Sherman, founder of The King’s Highway Trust, responds to an op-ed by historian Jack McCarthy that printed in last week’s Northeast Times. TIMES FILE PHOTO

By Jason Sherman

As a fourth-generation Northeast Philadelphia resident, I was astonished to find the vast history of the area mostly unknown back when I first found out about it in 2015. Since then, I have spent my valuable time, money and resources to help spread awareness to the fascinating stories that the true historians have painstakingly written over the past several decades, in part, by creating my award winning documentary, The King’s Highway.

Not once, have I ever (publicly or privately) stated that I was a historian, nor will I ever do so. When people call me a historian at events or in the media; that is not of my doing but theirs. I find myself correcting them every time, although it still hasn’t stuck. If I have become the public face of Northeast Philadelphia, I did not ask for that title or recognition. It was forced upon me, and over time I’ve learned to welcome it with open arms. Somebody needed to.

Northeast Philadelphia can’t spread awareness to itself, the stories can’t tell themselves, and the vast amount of history that we have needs to be in the public eye. The “sacred work” that true historians have worked on so diligently over the past several decades (and shared) is owned by Northeast Philadelphia, Philadelphia proper and the United States of America. These stories need to be told, not held back. The historic sites need to be seen, not hidden. Our artifacts should be shared, not hoarded. Above all, it is our duty as Philadelphians to support the various initiatives going on right now by area organizations, politicians, business owners, volunteers and residents alike.

As for any inaccuracies that may have been in my documentary, The Kings Highway, there is a simple explanation. As most people know, films leave out a great deal of minutiae in order to make the story more entertaining. I had many historians sit down with me during the production to help me with historical accuracy. The three producers of the film in particular (who are also historians) helped me with the accuracy of the film in my studio for many weeks. Jack McCarthy never showed an interest in sitting down with me, even though I reached out to him multiple times. His busy schedule just did not permit it.

The same applies to newspaper articles, where quotes are cut short for an easy read. In particular, most of what was said on the bus tour and added to the May 2 article was taken out of context. The quoted words might have been said, but in a different way and not as specific. When it comes to the director’s cut of the film, I did give supporters of the film ample notice and time to give me feedback and suggestions. I was able to take that feedback and turn a 108-minute film into a 93-minute film. More concise and enjoyable for a mass audience. Again, I was only able to use the feedback of those who reached out to me to help with the accuracy.

As many true historians in the area will tell you, I regularly reach out to them for facts, maps, documents, deeds, stories and accurate information. I wouldn’t be able to host tours and events without them, and I am truly thankful for all of their support. I still meet with true historians on a regular basis. In three years, Jack has not reached out to me to discuss the issues in his letter. If he had, I would have undoubtedly worked with him to rectify any issues in our initiatives or historical accuracy in our tours. I do substantially care about the accuracy of our history. So I will continue to do my best to provide more accurate information when quotes are written about events that I host, and will be more attentive to the facts as much as I can.

History meetings, books and articles are a wonderful wealth of knowledge, but they fall short of their true potential if nobody steps up to the plate to exploit those stories and spread awareness to the vast history we have in our area of the city. In three short years, I was able to film and edit the documentary (The King’s Highway), win the Best Feature Documentary award at a film festival, air the film on WHYY/PBS several dozen times in 2017, land an LA-based distributor, create an illustrated map of the King’s Highway and its historic sites, build a mobile app walking tour of Holmesburg (with other neighborhoods coming soon), start the official bus tour, create roughly 30 metal historic signs that will be placed along the highway in the coming months, build many websites and marketing material to help promote Northeast Philadelphia, and I try to help save historic buildings such as the Lower Dublin Academy. The media exposure that Northeast Philadelphia is finally getting is astounding (including a spot on CBS 3), and shows a true testament to the work that my nonprofit is accomplishing at lightning speeds.

Keep in mind, I never signed up for any of this, yet true historians compelled me to push forward, and said that I was the only one who could make an impact since I was the guy who started it all (with the film). So I accepted the challenge and honor even though it has disrupted my normal everyday life and businesses in a tremendous way. Remember, this is not my job, I am a volunteer, and have not made a profit from any of this thus far. I can’t say the same for others in the history community. Instead of being negative, and bringing down those around me, I’ve done my best to support everyone and stay positive. I started the Northeast Philly Initiative to be all-inclusive for all neighborhoods and organizations. I started the King’s Highway Trust nonprofit to get more people involved, and they have been remarkably supportive.

As Benjamin Franklin was once quoted, “Well done is better than well said.” Instead of talking, I’ve been doing, creating, promoting, pushing, hosting tours and helping the true historians tell their story in a much larger capacity. This is a call to action and a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to be a part of something bigger than myself. None of this is easy, if anything it is quite the opposite. It has undoubtedly been one of the most difficult undertakings I’ve ever had to endure. I am thankful for the thousands of people who have been supportive thus far, including true historians, politicians, journalists, organizations, business owners and residents.

My hope is that one day we will see Northeast Philadelphia come together as one community and stop fighting amongst ourselves. Although I am not a historian, I am, in fact, an entrepreneur who found a lack of support for our history and decided to take it to the next level. The film has been a godsend, because without it, we’d still be stuck in the Stone Age. Without the film and our initiatives, most of the world would not know of the stories that true historians have been telling about Northeast Philadelphia. The King’s Highway, and the history of Northeast Philadelphia, has now been seen by over 500,000 people in 17 countries, and 38 states in the USA alone. And that’s just the beginning.

My goal is to make sure everyone around the world hears these fantastic stories, and learns about the untold history of the United States of America here in Northeast Philadelphia. Let’s stand together, and support each other. Oh, and if you have any gripes about any of our initiatives, let’s be adults and talk about it over a cup of coffee. ••

Jason Sherman is an entrepreneur and filmmaker, founder of The King’s Highway Trust, and board member of the Holmesburg Community Development Corporation.