Grays Ferry man fights for his mother's legacy

Stanley Wilson — at planting day on Alter Street, near 26th
Stanley Wilson — at planting day on Alter Street, near 26th
Posted: May 16, 2012

For 80 of her 96 years, Mabel Wilson tended to both the land and the people she came in contact with from her house on tiny Alter Street in the Grays Ferry section of the city.

As old houses were torn down, Wilson and her neighbors planted gardens on vacant lots, and she taught children, hundreds and hundreds of children.

She started 4-H Clubs, Girl Scout and Boy Scout troops and held bible school each summer. In the winter, she turned her home into an arts and crafts center for children and taught girls how to sew, said her son, Stanley Wilson.

“In the ‘30s and ‘40s, they had very large gardens, fruit trees, apple trees, grapes; it was almost like farming back there, inner-city farming,” Stanley Wilson said. The quiet block dead-ends next to a railroad track and the shaded garden area has the feel of the rural South.

In 1947, Wilson incorporated her community program as the Central Club for Boys and Girls.

On Tuesday afternoon, Stanley Wilson, 62, will be forced to ask a Common Pleas Court judge to stop the planned sheriff’s sale Wednesday for two of the eight lots eventually deeded to the Central Club.

The nonprofit legally acquired the lots in 2008, but found out just last October that it also took on decades-old tax debt. Wilson said the debt is $20,000 for just the first two lots up for sale.

Stanley Wilson said he is hoping the judge will halt the sale while the club awaits a ruling on its tax-exempt status from the city.

“It would be a travesty if something that has been a benefit to the city at large, to the community and to thousands of kids who have come out of that part of South Philladelphia, would be lost,” Stanley Wilson said.

Amy Laura Cahn, a lawyer with the Public Interest Law Center of Philadelphia, said the IRS granted the Central Club tax-exempt status retroactively to 1947.

“They took care of the land, they cleaned it, gardened it and made sure no crime happened there,” Cahn said of the club, which is having its 67th reunion June 16 for people who came to the block as children.

Mabel Wilson was 16 when she moved to Alter Street in 1929. Right away, she began helping her neighbors by growing vegetables on a vacant lot, her son said. When Wilson married, the couple moved into the house next door to her parents and had raised seven children.

For years, Wilson held a day job working for the city’s antipoverty organization. To raise money for playground equipment, scouting activities, and gardening supplies, she took a second job scrubbing toilets and floors in city buildings at night, Stanley Wilson said.

Before her death in 2010, the city honored Wilson by hanging a red sign under the street sign on Alter Street naming it “Mabel Wilson Walk.”

Contact Valerie Russ at 215-854-5987 or russv@phillynews.com

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