Forgotten No More: Edmonia Lewis

Native Americans and African Americans shared ancestors include Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis (1844-1907) whose father was Black and her mother Chippewa (Ojibwa) Indian.

When I lived in DC, the Smithsonian American Art Museum was one of my sanctuaries. I spent countless hours with The Death of Cleopatra before I knew the sculpture was created by Lewis.

On January 26, 2022, the United States Postal Service will hold Edmonia Lewis Commemorative Forever® Stamp First Day of Issue Dedication Ceremony, the 45th stamp in the Black Heritage Series.

The U.S. Postal Service said:

As the first African American and Native American sculptor to earn international recognition, Edmonia Lewis challenged social barriers and assumptions about artists in mid-19th century America.

Born in Greenbush, NY, Lewis spent most of her career in Rome, where her studio became a must-see attraction for American tourists. In addition to portrait busts of prominent people, Lewis’s work incorporated African American themes, including the celebration of newly won freedoms, and sensitively depicted her Native American heritage as peaceful and dignified.

The Edmonia Lewis Black Heritage Stamp will be available for purchase in panes of 20 at post offices and online.

Happy Birthday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. “was born on the fifteenth of January” in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. King’s fearless leadership powered the Civil Rights Movement and inspired artists who have kept his legacy in public memory, including Nina Simone, Max Roach, Sonia Sanchez, Otis Spann, Brother Will Hairston and Stevie Wonder.

To celebrate Dr. King’s heavenly birthday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has on display an original draft of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The speech will be on view in the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibition through February 27, 2022. To learn more, go here.

Women of the Movement

Last month, the U.S. Department of Justice closed its second investigation into the brutal murder of Emmett Till by two white men in August 1955. The Justice Department said they could not corroborate the claim that Carolyn Bryant recanted the lie she told about her encounter with 14-year-old Emmett. It has been more than 66 years since Emmett was killed and we are still looking for justice.

ABC’s limited series, “Women of the Movement,” tells the story of Mamie Till who transformed a mother’s grief into a lifelong fighter for justice.

I attended a special virtual screening of the first six episodes hosted by the National Civil Rights Museum. “Women of the Movement” is a powerful drama based on the true story of Mamie Till-Mobley. The series captures the exuberance of Emmett’s youth and a mother’s love and sorrow. A mother’s determination to show the world “what they did to my baby” was a catalyst for the modern Civil Rights Movement.

“Women of the Movement” premieres on ABC on Thursday, January 6, 2022, 8/7c.

Stop Driving Us Crazy

In the coming months, we will make an announcement about legendary trumpeter and Philadelphia native Lee Morgan.

It’s driving me crazy that I can’t share the good news now. Instead, I will share Stop Driving Us Crazy, an animated safe driving PSA produced by the General Board of Temperance of the Methodist Church. Released in 1959, the soundtrack was scored by another Philadelphian, Benny Golson, and performed by Art Blakey and the Jazz Messengers featuring Lee Morgan on trumpet.

Gospel Roots of Rock and Roll

Muddy Waters famously said, “The blues had a baby and they named the baby rock and roll.”

The architect of rock and roll, Little Richard, credits gospel legend Marion Williams for making him a star. During the 1993 Kennedy Center Honors, he said, “If it weren’t for you, I never would have been a star. I got that whoop from you.”

A new documentary traces the gospel roots of rock and roll.

“How They Got Over” is now playing in theaters and virtual cinemas. For ticket info, go here.

Native American Heritage Month 2021

November is Native American Heritage Month. The contributions of Native Americans were erased by the false narrative that Christopher Columbus “discovered” land on which Indigenous People have lived for thousands of years. Public memorials to Columbus are sites of resistance. The movement to remove Christopher Columbus statues gained momentum in the wake of Black Lives Matter protests. According to a Washington Post and MIT Data + Feminism Lab analysis, at least 40 monuments to Columbus have been removed since 2018, the majority of which were taken down in 2020 and 2021. Their data show that 130 memorials are still standing, including two in Philadelphia – the Columbus Monument at Penn’s Landing and the Christopher Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza.

Indigenous People joined Black Lives Matter protests in 2020. Native Americans and African Americans have a shared history of resistance. Indigenous People and African Americans also share ancestors. Notables of Afro-Indigenous ancestry include sculptor Edmonia “Wildfire” Lewis, jazz trumpeter Doc Cheatham and Jimi Hendrix.

This shared history and heritage came to mind when I read George Bochetto, attorney for Friends of Marconi Plaza, asked, “Why can’t they put up another statue right here to honor Indigenous People?” In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I proposed a third way:

Rather than remove the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza, George Bochetto, attorney for Friends of Marconi Plaza, recently suggested erecting an additional statue to honor Indigenous People? You let everybody celebrate their ethnicity,” he said. My response: Why not? Why not tell the full story of the ancestral land of the Lenape Nation of Pennsylvania, on which the Columbus statue sits, and the layered histories of Marconi Plaza?

Native Americans and African Americans have a shared history of resistance to slavery and white supremacy. Indigenous People and African Americans are descendants of people whose land was stolen and people who were stolen from their homeland. Formerly enslaved people lived alongside Indigenous People in maroon communities in Louisiana and other Southern states. (Although some tribes enslaved Black people, I and other historians believe this form of slavery was much less brutal than American chattel slavery.)

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Christian Street Historic District: Which is Negro? Which is White?

The April 1952 issue of Ebony magazine included a quiz, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia has nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as a “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on that stretch, including architect Julian F. Abele, are largely unknown. According to his biographer, Abele did not identify as Negro; he classified himself “other.” Abele and his French wife lived at 1515 Christian Street. In 2021, African Americans are again asking, “Which is Negro? Which is White?”

The Preservation Alliance’s architectural historians claim that “between 1910 and 1945, the west side of Christian Street—from Broad to 20th—was ‘the social center of colored wealth and pride’ in Philadelphia.” Two white men crafted a narrative that flies in the face of decades of research by Black scholars, primary source documents, and African Americans’ lived experience. During the period of significance, “colored wealth” was concentrated among professionals. More doctors, dentists and lawyers lived on Lombard Street, and in West Philly and North Philly than on Christian Street. Colorism was the defining characteristic of the professionals who lived on so-called “Black Doctors’ Row.” Colorism is anti-Black racism by another name. By the way, when did the descriptor Black Doctors’ Row come into use? Before 1968, calling a Negro “black” would lead to a fight.

The myth of Black Doctors’ Row stems from a random article in the Philadelphia Tribune. In Black Bourgeoisie: The Rise of a New Middle Class in the United States, Dr. E. Franklin Frazier noted:

Although the Negro press declares itself to be the spokesman for the Negro group as a whole, it represents essentially the interests and outlook of the black bourgeoisie. Its demand for equality for the Negro in American life is concerned primarily with opportunities which will benefit the black bourgeoisie economically and enhance the social status of the Negro. The Negro press reveals the inferiority complex of the black bourgeoisie and provides a documentation of the attempts of this class to seek compensations for its hurt self-esteem and exclusion from American life. Its exaggerations concerning the economic well-being and cultural achievements of Negroes, its emphasis upon Negro “society” all tend to create a world of make-believe into which the black bourgeoisie can escape from its inferiority and inconsequence in American society.

As for Christian Street’s bougie Negroes being the center of racial pride, don’t get me started. Instead, listen to Dr. Frazier:

Their emotional and mental conflicts arise partly from their constant striving for status within the Negro world, as well as in the estimation of whites. Moreover, they have accepted unconditionally the values of the white bourgeois world: its morals and its canons of respectability, its standards of beauty and consumption. In fact, they have tended to overemphasize their conformity to white ideals. Nevertheless, they are rejected by the white world, and this rejection has created considerable self-hatred, since it is attributed to their Negro characteristics. At the same time, because of their ambivalence towards Negroes, they are extremely sensitive to slights and discriminations which Negroes suffer. Since they do not truly identify themselves with Negroes, the hollowness of the black bourgeoisie’s pretended “racial pride” is revealed in the value which it places upon a white or light complexion.

I will oppose the Christian Street Historic District nomination when it comes before the Philadelphia Historical Commission. For now, I will share some observations of Lawrence Otis Graham, the foremost authority on the Black elite. In his New York Times bestseller Our Kind of People: Inside America’s Black Upper Class, Graham acknowledged:

Skin color has always played an important role in determining one’s popularity, prestige, and mobility within the black elite. It is hard to find an upper-class black American family that has been well-to-do since before the 1950s that has not endured family conversations on the virtues of “good hair, sharp features, and nice complexion.” These code words for having less Negroid features have been exchanged over time for more politically correct ones, but it is a fact that the black upper class thinks about these things more than most.

The Negro press also thought about skin color more than most. A large part of their revenue was derived from advertisements for skin bleaching products.

Graham’s kind of people — “the doctor-lawyer, high-church, high-yellow, Episcopalian crowd” — lived on Christian Street where the first meeting of Jack and Jill of America Inc. was held at the home of Marion Turner Stubbs who was married to Dr. Frederick D. Stubbs.

Graham grew up in Jack and Jill. In his chapter, “Jack and Jill: Where Elite Black Kids Are Separated from the Rest,” he wrote:

In its early years, Jack and Jill—like many groups that catered to the black establishment in the first half of the twentieth century—attracted a negative reaction from many blacks who lacked the resources, the pedigree, or the physical appearance to be considered for membership. History shows that some chapters, particularly the ones in the larger southern cities, were clearly guilty of placing a great emphasis on these characteristics, but others were unfairly attacked for doing the same thing when what really was happening was that they were just nominating people who were in their social circle, their church, their bridge club. And not surprisingly, these darker, less-pedigreed people had long before been shut out of those institutions.

Jack and Jill kids did not play with the kids at the Christian Street YMCA which was founded in 1889. The founding meeting was held at the Washington Square West home of William Still.

The Christian Street Historic District would memorialize a caste system that stems from slavery and the rape of Black women and girls by their enslavers. White supremacy comes in many guises, including colorism and self-hatred. Christian Street notables were “light, bright, and damn near white.” If Negroes did not have white-adjacent features or an economic status that “compensated” for their skin color and hair texture, they had to “get back, get back, get back.”

Henry Minton House, Systemic Cronyism and Historic Preservation

John Brown launched the raid on Harpers Ferry on October 16, 1859.

The home of elite caterer Henry Minton was one of the last places the freedom fighter laid his head. Minton was an abolitionist and stockholder in the Underground Railroad. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. Du Bois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

Minton was a cosigner of an iconic Civil War recruitment poster.

In Black History Month 2019, the Henry Minton House was considered for listing on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The Committee on Historic Designation unanimously recommended designating the property a historic landmark. On April 12, 2019, the Historical Commission ignored the recommendation and denied historic designation. City Council President Darrell Clarke’s designee was the lone vote in support of the nomination. Mayor Jim Kenney appointed 12 of the 13 commissioners.

On the eve of Black History Month 2021, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development demolished the Henry Minton House. Midwood’s lawyer, Matthew McClure, was a member of the Mayor’s Task Force on Historic Preservation.

Since April 2019, I have railed against the Commission’s vote (here, here and here). As it turns out, the denial of historic designation was less about systemic racism and more about systemic cronyism. Last week, Josh Lippert, Department of Licenses & Inspections’ designee, blew the whistle. Lippert said he was “directed by the administration as a designee to the commission for L&I to vote against designation for a specific project for what I can tell was for development and/or political reasons.” He has since resigned.

Paul Chrystie, a spokesperson for the city, shrugged off Lippert’s allegation. Chrystie told WHYY, “There is nothing untoward about a Commissioner instructing his representative about how to represent him. Accordingly, in those cases in which the administration [read: Mayor Kenney] has a position on a proposed designation before [the historical commission], those departments are expected to be receptive to that position.”

Chrystie’s comment begs the question: Why would the Mayor and his appointees have a “position” other than to preserve one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad?

The Office of the Inspector General has opened an investigation. Councilmember Helen Gym (At Large) said in a statement:

We need to trust in the integrity of our public institutions. The recent allegations by a member of the Philadelphia Historical Commission must be taken very seriously.

Last year, I joined organizers, historians, and activists across the city to protect the Camac Baths, which proudly displayed our city’s tribute to LGBT visionary Gloria Casarez, and the Minton Residence, home and workplace of abolitionist Henry Minton. I share in the community outrage when the Commission denied these locations historical designations that could have protected them from destruction.

The OIG says, “See Something? Say Something.” At the April 12, 2019 meeting of the Historical Commission, I saw the commissioners ignore the unanimous recommendation of the Committee on Historic Designation. The chair of the Committee switched sides and voted to deny protection to the Henry Minton House.

To this day, Emily Cooperman has not explained why she changed her vote. So I reported the switcheroo to the OIG. Stay tuned.