Racial justice activists, Black clergy and elected officials gathered Tuesday outside the Union League of Philadelphia to call on the elite social club to cancel a planned award for Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis.
DeSantis, widely expected to be a potential 2024 GOP presidential candidate, has attacked the teaching of African American history in schools and curtailed voting rights in his home state, they said.
“This smells like Jim Crow 2023,” said the Rev. Robert Collier, president of the Black Clergy of Philadelphia and Vicinity.
Perhaps more ire was reserved for Union League leaders who decided to honor him with their Gold Medal, a prestigious honor first presented to Abraham Lincoln.
“Gov. DeSantis is allowed to do what he does,” said the Rev. Alyn E. Waller, pastor of Enon Tabernacle Baptist Church. “This is not necessarily about him. It is about the people in Philadelphia who are hosting him.”
Organizers from the local NAACP, National Action Network and other groups asked Union League members to stop paying dues and encouraged businesses and other entities to boycott the club in protest.
Representatives from the Union League did not respond to questions. Activist Melissa Robbins, who organized the rally, and Catherine Hicks, president of the Philadelphia NAACP, said multiple calls to the club were ignored.
“There is a level of arrogance that’s happening inside this building that’s got to be addressed,” state Sen. Vincent Hughes, a Democrat, said.
City Councilmember Sharon Vaughn is planning to introduce a resolution – backed by at least 9 other members – on Thursday denouncing the Union League.
DeSantis’s office confirmed he was in Philadelphia on Tuesday to accept the award in-person but did not comment further.
He was set to be honored at an evening gala, held after Metro went to print. An additional protest was planned around his anticipated arrival at the Union League’s ornate headquarters at Broad and Sansom streets.
In recent days, DeSantis has made headlines defending Florida’s decision not to participate in a College Board pilot program introducing Advanced Placement courses in African American studies, characterizing the classes as “indoctrination.”
Philadelphia, in 2005, became the first large city to mandate African American history for public high school students.
“Gov. DeSantis wishes to completely sanitize our country, our classrooms, and our college lecture halls of Black history,” Robbins said. “Black history is American history.”
More than 100 Union League members signed a letter urging the club not to honor DeSantis, but the request was denied, according to the Inquirer.
The organization has more than 4,000 dues-paying members, and, the Union League website says, joining the club “is in the vanguard of Philadelphia life, counting among our members many top leaders in business, academia, law, medicine, politics, religion, and the arts.”
In addition to the headquarters, which has a strict dress code, the club runs a BYOB in Stone Harbor, a restaurant on the Main Line, a country club in Northeast Philadelphia and golf clubs in Montgomery County and Cape May County.