Gather Place Museum Preserves the Story of Black Yardley


“I believe Black history is America’s history. I believe the story of African American Yardley is the story of Yardley Borough,” Ms. Shirley Lee Corsey says.

Ms. Corsey is Executive Director of the Gather Place, which is located within a former African Methodist Episcopal (A.M.E.) Church on a quiet street along the canal in Yardley Borough. Ms. Corsey speaks in a tone that is both friendly and enthusiastic. She believes names reveal histories and tends to append honorifics to those she describes, calling each one Mr. or Ms..  One would never have guessed her career was in Computer Science the way her face lights up when telling stories about the past.

A.M.E. Church of Yardley was built in 1877 and served as a place of worship for the small surrounding African American community until the 1990s when one of its last congregants passed away. Soon after, the church was abandoned, and in the subsequent two decades, the church fell into disrepair.

Ms. Corsey renovated the church and repurposed it as the Gather Place Museum in 2022. The interior displays photos and newspaper articles preserving the legacies of Yardley’s Black residents.

Gather place old church
photo credit: gatherplace.org


One of the photos on exhibition is of Ms. Shirley Lee Corsey’s family standing in front of the A.M.E. Church of Yardley in 1958. On the left are the preacher and his wife. In the center are two girls dressed in white. The shorter one is Ms. Corsey’s oldest sister Janice, and the taller one is her cousin Debbie. The little boy, to the right of them, is her brother Kevin.

“I’m from this neighborhood, and I’m third generation. I’m one of 11 children. We were raised right here in Yardley,” Ms. Corsey says.

The Lee home, which was built in 1928, is 3 houses down from the A.M.E. Church. While Ms. Corsey and her family did not worship at A.M.E. Church of Yardley, it was ever-present in her life growing up. She remembers when she and her siblings were out playing her mom would command ‘You don’t go any further than that Church.’

Conserving the Church

After her parents passed away, the Lee house needed major renovations. Ms. Corsey volunteered to take on the job of fixing it up, and right before COVID, she acquired the home with her family’s blessing. When the pandemic hit, Ms. Corsey used her newfound isolation to dedicate herself to the project of renovating the house.

As Ms. Corsey was in Yardley more and more, she passed the old A.M.E. Church each time on the way to her home. The church was badly in need of repairs: its roof was damaged, its siding needed a fresh coat of paint, its A/C unit was not functional. In January 2022, her brother was working on a pandemic project of his own, collecting photos from their childhood, including the old church.

One day, he called her and asked if she would consider looking into becoming the conservator of the property. According to PA law, if you live within a certain distance of an abandoned property, you can apply to be a conservator and receive permission from the state to make repairs on a property that is considered unsafe.

“I think it was a higher-level calling,” Ms. Corsey says. “I think we’re all called to do something. It doesn’t have to necessarily be a religious calling. I believe everybody has a purpose.”

Ms. Corsey dug into the records and found that the church had no legal entanglements, the title never changed hands, and there was no debt, which is uncommon for old buildings. Ms. Corsey hired a lawyer who took the case to the Bucks County Court of Common Pleas, where she was awarded conservatorship. Attending in support were the children of the last members of the church.

“I wanted to make sure [the church’s] legacy stays,” Ms. Corsey says. “Because since the 1970s, the African American community has dwindled away, but this church will always be here as long as I have anything to do with it, even hopefully after I’m gone.”


Gather place 2020
photo credit: gatherplace.org

Gather place 2022

Black Yardley History is Yardley History

In September of 2022, the nonprofit Gather Place opened to the public with the mission to preserve the history of Black Yardley. However, many people are surprised to find that there is even a Black community history in Yardley to preserve.

“If I had a dollar each time since we’ve opened that someone came in here and said, ‘I had no idea this was here.’ And I know what they’re saying: ‘I had no idea that there was even a Black community [in Yardley].’ That’s why this project is so important,” she says.

Ms. Corsey likes to tell visitors about the history of her family, the Lees, and some other members of the Black community in Yardley, such as the Derry family.

The Derry family is the oldest known African American family from Yardley Borough dating back to Ms. Mary Derry, born in 1790, according to an 1850 Census record. Seven generations of the Derry family have lived in Yardley Borough. In fact, the Derry family is possibly the longest continuous line of not only Black Yardley residents but all Yardley residents.

Ms. Julia Derry Robinson Jacobs, a descendant of the Derry family, and her relatives were the last congregants of the A.M.E. Church of Yardley before Ms. Jacobs’ death in the 1990s. Yardley Borough’s first and only Black mayor, Mr. Edward E. Robinson, is the son of Ms. Julia Derry Robinson Jacobs.

“These are the stories that we love sharing. And people come in here and we talk, next thing they go, ‘Oh, I knew this one, and I knew that one.’ It’s a beautiful community experience and that is my mission,” Ms. Corsey says.

The Derry line in Yardley continues to this day. Ms. Helen Marie Mayo, a Derry descendant, and her husband Mr. Granville Mayo are both 90 years old. Their daughter, Susan Mayo Brown, takes care of them. Ms. Corsey wants to interview the last generation of people who belonged to the church, like the Mayo family, while they are still here. Her dream is to preserve and archive the footage for future generations. She calls the project “Generational Voices.”

Preserving “Generational Voices”


To do it right would require hiring professionals to record videos, edit the interviews, and create an interactive library for visitors to enjoy. This would take resources the Gather Place just did not have. However, Ms. Corsey is not one to let a dream slip away due to a lack of gumption. People she knows often call her a force.

“I believe I take it as a compliment. Not a radical force like I’m going to hit you on the head,” she jokes. “But it’s radical in that I think I’m driven.”

She heard about a National Historic Preservation grant specifically for non-active Black churches to fund programs and interpretation. Her project fit the grant’s description perfectly. This past fall, the National Trust for Historic Preservation awarded Gather Place a $75,000 grant to fund “Generational Voices.” Gather Place was one of 31 Black churches selected out 550 across the country that applied for a National Historic Preservation grant.

“I’m very proud that Gather Place nonprofit, headquartered at the A.M.E. Church of Yardley, is nationally known. That’s a beautiful thing,” Ms. Corsey says.

From acquiring her family home, to the pandemic, to receiving an auspicious call from her brother, to finding out nobody had a claim to the church, the confluence of events that led to Ms. Corsey opening the Gather Place has been serendipitous to say the least. However, she believes it was fate.

“Everything comes together in life when you get my age. Your professional skill, your passion, and your heart and your soul all come together,” Ms. Corsey says. “When you know it and you follow it, and it’s successful, that’s when you know it was meant to be.”



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