'Funeral for a Home' will honor the storied life of trailblazer Leona Richardson

Leona Richardson, who died in 2002, bought 3711 Melon St. in 1946, when owning a house was rare for single women. She raised her son there and still owned it at the time of her death.
Leona Richardson, who died in 2002, bought 3711 Melon St. in 1946, when owning a house was rare for single women. She raised her son there and still owned it at the time of her death. (RON TARVER / Staff Photographer)
Posted: May 13, 2014

The house is a wreck, all broken windows and boarded doors, soon to be torn down.

But Annie Hunt remembers when the home was alive - a place of light and laughter, a haven for a mother and son.

The West Philadelphia property belonged to a strong and determined woman, Hunt's aunt Leona Richardson. As a teenager in the late 1930s, Richardson struck out alone from the segregated South, leaving small-town Louisiana and making her way to Baltimore. When World War II broke out, she got a job in a defense plant as a welder.

After the war, and by then the parent of a baby boy in an era when out-of-wedlock births were considered scandalous, Richardson moved to Philadelphia and bought a house - 3711 Melon St., a two-bedroom rowhouse in Mantua.

"She was very independent," Hunt said in a phone interview.

Richardson died in 2002 at 80, and her house fell to ruin. But this month, the empty house will be celebrated with an elaborate "funeral," complete with clergy, a procession through the streets, and hymns sung by a gospel choir.

Then it will be demolished, with trucks bearing its remains to rest.

Called "Funeral for a Home," the project is the concept of artists, historians, and civic leaders who want to honor Mantua's past and herald its potential rebirth as part of a new federal Promise Zone.

By recognizing the heart and history of one home, organizers said, they recognize them all - in a city where demolitions have become commonplace.

Hunt, 57, plans to travel here from Newark, Ohio, for the May 31 ceremonies. Her sister, Julia LeBlanc, 70, will come all the way from San Diego.

"We want to represent and honor my aunt, for her dedication and everything that she's done," Hunt said. "Aunt Leona, she was dear to us."

Other families lived at 3711 before Richardson arrived in 1946. But she owned it the longest, and it's her family that's most associated with the home.

Richardson was born in 1922 in Maryland, but was raised in the family home in Thibodaux, a patch of southern Louisiana known for swamps and oil.

In 1940, the town had 5,800 people, and even now its population is only 14,500. The town is best known - if it's known at all - for its lyrical place in "Amos Moses," the 1970 Jerry Reed hit about a one-armed alligator hunter.

About 1,300 miles north lies Mantua, which began as a city suburb, home to Irish and Jewish residents at the turn of the 20th century. In midcentury, African American families arrived in the great migration from the South.

Richardson was part of that movement.

She went first to Maryland, because she had family there. When war broke out, Baltimore boomed, employing 60,000 in shipyards and 53,000 in aircraft works, and thousands more in electronics and steelmaking.

Many of those workers were women, handling what were traditionally men's jobs while husbands and boyfriends were away at war.

It's unclear what brought Richardson to Philadelphia. Records show she bought the Melon Street house in August 1946, five months after delivering her son, Roger.

She paid $1,600 for the property, making a down payment of $200.

Buying a house was bold. Single women - much less single women with babies - didn't own homes in 1940s America.

In that house, Richardson crafted a life for herself and her child. She ran a home sewing business, stitching slip covers and drapes, taking in work from neighbors in what then was a bustling Mantua.

The neighborhood, set west of the Schuylkill and north of the University of Pennsylvania, was a solid community of rowhouses and single-family manses. People worked at shops on Lancaster Avenue or took trolleys to jobs in Center City.

Richardson worked as a seamstress at Wanamaker's department store, determined that Roger would have money not just for clothes and toys but also for private school.

A neighbor, Freddie Stokes, recalled to Funeral for a Home researchers that Roger had the best toys on the block. Friends were invited to dining-room cartoon shows, which Roger put on with the aid of his Kenner Give-A-Show projector.

In the 1960s came another war, in Vietnam.

Roger, whom everyone in the family called Butch, served in the Air Force, rising to the rank of sergeant. While he was away, one of Richardson's young nephews came from Louisiana to live with her, telling her she needed a man in the house.

When Roger was discharged, Richardson sent her teenage helper back to Louisiana. "It's time for you to go home," she told him.

Roger Richardson worked for the Children's Aid Society of Pennsylvania, as a counselor for Carson Valley Children's Aid in Flourtown, and for the First Transit bus company. He was above all a loving son, caring for his mother as she grew older.

In about 1990, the two moved around the corner to 652 N. 37th St., a house they had bought in 1978. After that, 3711 Melon was occupied by renters.

Roger Richardson outlived his mother by only seven years; he was 63 when he died in 2009.

The settling of the estate fell to Hunt, the youngest of eight siblings, who had exchanged cards and letters with her aunt Leona, her mother's sister. In 2011, the estate sold 3711 Melon to a developer for $9,000, and the next year the house was sold again, to WPRE Inventory for $15,000.

That firm, an affordable-housing developer, was willing to let the house be torn down because it plans to rebuild much of the 3700 block. The property's value lies in the land.

Today, the house is surrounded by vacant lots. The city has cited the property for rubbish, for being unsecured, and for a collapsing roof and bulging rear wall. An October filing deemed the house unsafe.

Nearly 15 percent of houses in the Promise Zone are vacant, twice the city average.

Neighborhood leaders want to change that, with help from the federal government. In January, the Obama administration named a swath of West Philadelphia one of five Promise Zones nationwide. All are due to get extra attention - but no money - in a bid to end decades of decline.

The Philadelphia zone, bounded by the Schuylkill to the east, Girard Avenue to the north, 48th Street to the west, and Sansom Street to the south, covers all of Mantua and all or part of Powelton, West Powelton, and Belmont.

The area is poor, with an overall poverty rate of 51 percent - and in some areas 80 percent. Houses are disappearing through neglect and demolition.

"A lot of them are being erased. They're unceremoniously erased from neighborhoods," said Robert Blackson, director of Temple Contemporary, the university arts program that's organizing Funeral for a Home. "This project gives us an opportunity to sit for a moment with one of these homes and reflect on its history."

In three weeks, 3711 Melon will be gone, organizers note, but at least it will get a send-off.

"It's exciting, but it's so unusual," Hunt said. "When I first got the phone call, I didn't quite understand it. 'You're doing what?' "

The more she heard about the project, the more she saw it as a fitting credit to her aunt.

"We just want to be there to represent her and her influence," Hunt said. "Aunt Leona never knew her home would lead to something like this."


jgammage@phillynews.com

215-854-4906 @JeffGammage

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