By John N. Mitchell
The Belmont Mansion Museum, a historic stop on the Underground Railroad, was transformed into an appropriate homage on Friday to the person responsible for its existence.
The body of Audrey Patrick Johnson-Thornton lay in state Friday afternoon inside the museum atop the Belmont Plateau as a steady stream of visitors paid their final respects to the former director who saved the site from demolition more than 30 years ago.
“She was a pioneer and a visionary that wanted to make sure that there was a physical representation of our history here, and she single-handedly in many ways made sure that Belmont Mansion was revitalized, institutionalized and set for a future,” said Sandra Dungee Glenn, who thought of Johnson-Thornton as a mentor. “I’m glad I had a chance to see her here at the mansion a couple of weeks before her transition.”
A colonial-era home of an abolitionist family (Peters), the site first went through extensive renovations that began in 1986. When it was discovered that the location was a stop on the Underground Railroad, part of it was converted into a museum. And more recently, a state-of-the art meeting facility was added that hosts gatherings from weddings to sorority and fraternity meetings and other events.
The mansion was transformed into a museum honoring her many accomplishments, which included establishing the American Women’s Heritage Society, serving on Lincoln University’s board of trustees, serving on the Mayor’s Commission for Women, and working with the Urban League of Philadelphia and the Philadelphia orchestra’s cultural diversity initiative.
As the American flag flew at half-staff under cloudy skies, those entering the museum were greeted by students in green blazers from the Global Leadership Academy where Johnson-Thornton’s daughter, Naomi Johnson-Booker, is the CEO.
Beyond the students, in a warmly lit foyer, a number of covered tables supported dozens of awards and honors that Johnson-Thornton had accumulated over a lifetime, including the Martin Luther King Drum Major Award from the city of Philadelphia. Purple and lavender flower bouquets were placed throughout the mansion. Johnson-Thornton was a one time fashion model known for her stylish hats, and many of the women paying their respects did so wearing purple hats.
“This is a wonderful way to honor a person who was a warrior for the city and the history and legacy of the Underground Railroad,” said longtime friend Kim Fuller. “She was a jewel. The Belmont Mansion is the crown jewel of Philadelphia and we would not have the Belmont Mansion or the American Women’s Heritage Society without her.”
This article originally appeared in The Philadelphia Tribune.