By Kelly Powers

One community's fight for a neighborhood anchor can finally rest.

La Mott Community Center can expect revitalization thanks to about $3.8 million in federal grant money, finalized by lawmakers this month among statewide Community Project Funding. The Cheltenham Township fixture, over 12 miles from Center City, shares ground with what was once the largest federal training camp for Black troops in the American Civil War: Camp William Penn.

But the community hub and landmark has been largely shuttered for the past three years.

The center closed in October 2021, as failing infrastructure stacked onto pandemic shutdown. Its future was thrown into question. Cheltenham didn’t have answers, while residents rallied to save a staple of neighborhood identity, generations of memory and national history. 

After a long road, national coverage and continued local activism — people have been listening.

Black troops, Civil War, summer camp:Philly suburb fights for more than a community center

"I couldn't believe it — the work and the talking and the meetings — it paid off," said resident Geraldine Brown, local organizer with La Mott Citizens United. "When I heard it, my heart sank in happiness."

U.S. Rep. Madeleine Dean spearheaded the appropriation request last spring, seeking federal funds for center rehabilitation among $11.9 million in Community Project Funding secured for Berks and Montgomery Counties, according to her team.

“Our budget reflects our values — so it is especially meaningful when we can secure federal investments that directly improve our communities and the resources we can offer,” Dean said in a statement. “I’m always inspired by the organizations in our district who are on the ground, meeting the needs of our neighbors with innovation and compassion."

For Cheltenham, work is still needed across the township.

In a special session earlier this month, its board of commissioners heard the latest update on plans from its hired architecture and design firm — now not only looking to renovating three community centers, but also build a central library, replace township pools, consolidate municipal offices and more. The board is set to “debate and vote in the near future," as described in session.

Brown cautioned this will be a process, one she and other residents know they'll be watching closely.

But today she dares to hope a community epicenter will be secured for generations to come.

Why should I have heard of La Mott? 

Camp William Penn volunteers would have walked among thousands of men, some having escaped slavery in nearby states, to pour through the gates and enlist in the Union Army. Some 11,000 men, 11 infantry units, would cross these grounds, landing on battlefields across the country and earning medals for their service. 

The camp was demolished after the Civil War. And only after that war did a strong Black community begin to grow in present-day La Mott. 

To this stone building, a school came in 1879. A community center filled the same walls by 1941. Residents have gathered here for decades. This corner has hosted bridal showers, birthday parties, Girl Scout meetings, dance classes and summer camps. Its walls have heard school bells, wedding bells and the drumming of basketballs. 

Then, doors were sealed shut. 

“We were so messed up by the fact that the center was closing for the community,” Brown recalled back in May 2023. “They had nowhere to go. The kids had no camp. They had nothing.” 

Residents had to listen for months as officials debated whether the center would be deemed worth the cost of renovation. Even in an area bearing one of the highest tax burdens in Montgomery County, they were told about 15 other facilities demand similar repair.

The township had to hire an architecture firm in summer 2022 to study the myriad infrastructure shortcomings and feasible renovations.


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