Lawnside’s Peter Mott House will be closed to visitors Saturday, as a beloved civic leader who saved the structure from demolition is laid to rest in the borough whose history he championed.
Clarence Still Jr., patriarch of an illustrious African American family whose annual reunions he organized for decades, died Friday at age 83. Funeral services are set for 11 a.m. at Mount Zion United Methodist Church in Lawnside, with burial to follow in the church cemetery.
“It’s a great loss,” Mayor Mary Ann Wardlow said. “Myself and my family, the Borough Council, and the residents of Lawnside extend our prayers and sympathy to the Still family.”
Settled before the Civil War, Lawnside was a haven for free blacks and runaway slaves. Members of the Still clan continue to live in the borough.
“Everybody called him Clem,” said Gloria Still, Clarence Still’s sister-in-law. “He was what people might call laid-back, but there was an intensity about him. I don’t think I ever saw him angry. If he disagreed with you, he would quietly find a way to set you straight.”
Still family members in the region trace their lineage to the 19th-century brothers William, an author; James, a self-educated doctor; and the former slave Peter, who was able to buy his family’s freedom.
Peter Mott, an African American farmer, and his wife built the Mott House about 1845. Clarence Still, an Air Force veteran who was a plant supervisor at Philadelphia’s Budd Co., became an expert on the history of the modest frame dwelling where the Motts sheltered runaway slaves.
But many folks around town were unaware of the significance of the property, which was vacant and in disrepair. The borough itself had issued a demolition permit.
“The most excited I ever saw Clem in my life was [in 1989], when he found out it could be torn down,” Gloria Still said.
“We could have lost the single most important artifact we have that connects [Lawnside] to the transition from slavery to freedom,” said Linda Shockley, president of the Lawnside Historical Society Inc.
Like pretty much everyone who grew up or lived in the borough, Shockley knew the Still family. But she really got to know Clarence Still when they worked together to persuade Mark DeFeo, developer of a townhouse complex on the site, to spare the empty house.
“Clarence Still had so much information, so much knowledge,” Shockley said. “But he wasn’t promoting himself. He wasn’t puffed up. He walked around in his overalls, and if your lawn mower didn’t work, he’d fix it.”
Morris G. Smith, the attorney who represented the historical society at the time, called Still “the intellectual driving force” behind an agreement to preserve the house, which has since been listed on national and state historic registers.
“He understood the significance as well as anyone in the community,” Smith said. “He spent a lot of time with the developer and persuaded him. He was a dignified presence, and he showed that the issue was bigger” than a development issue.
Haddonfield lawyer Donald Cofsky, who represented DeFeo, said Still “was a consummate gentleman. He gave [us] a lot of information about the history of the house, and he was very persuasive.”
Still was “emblematic of a lot of men of his generation in Lawnside,” Smith noted. “They were fiercely proud of their community — what it stood for, and still stands for.”
About two weeks before Still’s death, Shockley paid him a final visit.
“I sat with him, and talked to him, and prayed with him,” she said. “I wanted him to know how much we appreciate what he contributed. If it weren’t for Clarence Still, there would be no Peter Mott House today.”
Contact Kevin Riordan at 856-779-3845 or firstname.lastname@example.org, or follow on Twitter @inqkriordan. Read the metro columnists’ blog, “Blinq,” at www.phillynews.com/blinq.