Origin of the Blues

The King of the Blues B.B. King famously told us why he sang the blues.

Legendary blues singer and guitarist John Lee Hooker contemplated an Origin of the Blues flow chart.

The Queen of the Blues Dinah Washington said “the blues ain’t nothin’ but a woman cryin’ for her man.”

Whatever the origin, all I want to hear is some down home blues.

Election Day 2022

The 15th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was ratified on February 3, 1870.

Section 1 of the Reconstruction Amendment reads:

The right of citizens of the United States to vote shall not be denied or abridged by the United States or by any State on account of race, color, or previous condition of servitude.

Election Day is Tuesday, November 8. Be careful how you vote.

Philadelphia Searches for African American Historical Figure to Celebrate

The PBS documentary HARRIET TUBMAN: VISIONS OF FREEDOM premiered on October 4, 2022.

From Frederick Douglass to the CIA, Harriet Tubman’s singular contribution to American history is recognized. Yet Philadelphia, the city where Tubman first experienced freedom, is scrounging around for an African American historical figure to celebrate. Without explanation, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) is seeking public input “for a permanent statue that celebrates Harriet Tubman’s story or another African American’s contributions to our nation’s history.”

The survey asks five questions, all of which beg the question: Why is OACCE searching for random African American historical figures to replace Harriet Tubman? OACCE is heading down the same path of lack of transparency and incoherence that led to the reversal of their plan to award a no-bid commission to a white artist. OACCE Director Kelly Lee and Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin are cruising for another bruising.

Harriet Tubman Statue Update

Philadelphia’s plan to award a non-competitively bid commission for a Harriet Tubman statue has encountered fierce resistance (here and here). Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee sent an open letter to Mayor Jim Kenney requesting a meeting:

We write this letter to request a meeting with you; preferably one day this month. We will make ourselves available according to your schedule. We want. We are aware you are in support of this decision.

The Committee Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman takes extreme exception to this decision announced by the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) to award a no bid commission (in the amount of $500,000) to create a permanent statue of Nana Harriet to Wesley Wofford, where an Open Call Process was not considered. Such actions prevent other artists from the opportunity to compete for a contract/commission especially for such an iconic, historical, and culturally important figure as Nana Harriet Tubman!

Our research shows that the OACCE has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a performing artist to do a specific piece in 2017. The handful of non-bid contracts was awarded to conservation professionals. As one committee member has stated, “The community is fighting to ensure there’s not a second no bid-commission.”

Simply stated, as Philadelphia residents, we are being deprived of a free and open process to see other versions of Nana Harriet through the creative visioning of other artists, especially Black women and other People of Color. Our committee rejects this blatant disregard of protocol and nationally accepted best practices for public art procurement, coupled with the dismissal of community voices.

Mayor Kenney recently announced the African American Museum in Philadelphia will relocate to the former Family Court building on Benjamin Franklin Parkway. In a tweet, he said, “Looking forward to the proposals of the four chosen development teams who will reimagine the sites.”

While Mayor Kenney looks forward to the competing visions for the museum’s new home, Philadelphia residents are supposed to accept the vision of Kenney’s handpicked artist, Wesley Wofford, a white sculptor whose studio is located in the North Carolina Mountains. The Mayor and OACCE Executive Director Kelly Lee want to award a no-bid commission to Wofford to imagine a Black icon who was the most celebrated conductor of the Underground Railroad and Civil War hero.

The competitive procurement opportunity for the adaptive reuse of the Family Court building is managed by the Philadelphia Industrial Development Corporation (PIDC). The RFP affirms: “The City’s and PIDC’s primary objective in issuing this solicitation is to select a diverse, experienced, capable and qualified development team that will ultimately plan and implement a dynamic commercial development that significantly enhances and complements the existing cultural, commercial and residential developments along the Benjamin Franklin Parkway and to maximize the value of the Property for the City.”

The focus on diversity and best qualified applicant begs the question: What is the primary objective in awarding a non-competitively bid commission to Wesley Wofford who is batting 0 for 23 on public commissions for Harriet Tubman statues?

Standing Up for Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad, is memorialized in countless dissertations, history books, novels, documentaries, artworks, songs, and movies.

According to the Monument Lab National Audit, Harriet is among the historical figures with the most public monuments. As of December 2021, there were 21 public memorials of Harriet in cities across the country.

A new statue of Harriet Tubman was unveiled on the grounds of Lincoln Park in Pomona, California on July 4, 2022.

Philadelphia’s Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) plans to award a no-bid commission to Wesley Wofford, creator of the touring statue, The Journey to Freedom, which was installed on the North apron of City Hall from January 11 to March 31, 2022.

OACCE recently held a public engagement session allegedly to “help inform the design of this statue.”

Public Art Director Marguerite Anglin said the lack of an open call was due to the “tremendous outpouring of love and pride for the Journey to Freedom statue.” Maisha Ongoza, a member of Celebrating the Legacy of Nana Harriet Tubman Committee, schooled Anglin and her boss, Chief Cultural Officer and OACCE Executive Director Kelly Lee:

I know the statue had a lot of emotions in people but I know a lot of artists who can generate that same level of emotion. That’s what artists do. … He [Wesley Wofford] doesn’t have a monopoly on being able to capture what people feel about Nana Harriet. Everyone feels her deeply that’s how important she is to us.

Ongoza and other community members protested the lack of transparency. The decision to award Wofford a no-bid commission was done without public input. Yet the public is expected to engage in “listening” sessions, surveys and other forums designed to pick their brain for free while an artist whose studio is located in a former Confederate state picks up a $500,000 check. Wofford brings nothing unique to the table. There is no reason the public feedback that OACCE plans to share with Wofford cannot be shared with other artists in an open call.

Kelly Lee dismissed concerns about denying Black and other artists an opportunity to participate. She said, “Our office has the ability to commission a specific artist to do a specific piece.” Since 2017, her office has awarded one non-competitively bid commission to a specific artist to do a specific piece.

The community is fighting to ensure there’s not a second no-bid commission. Ongoza told Lee: “Why can’t we have an open call process? We feel cheated that we can’t get a chance see what other artists could offer up for us. We’re just locked into what we’ve seen already when we know the potential of others is also just as great.”

Harriet Tubman made her escape from bondage under the cover of darkness. OACCE made its decision to hire Wesley Wofford under the cover of darkness. I am going to shine light on this “unique situation” by filing Right-to-Know-Law requests with OACCE and the Procurement Department. Kelly Lee wants the community to believe she can unilaterally award a non-competitively bid commission. She cannot. Sole source contracts must be approved in writing by the Procurement Commissioner, the Finance Director and the City Solicitor.

The struggle continues.

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

In an Independence Day speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”


The world will come to Philadelphia in 2026 to commemorate the 250th anniversary of the Declaration of Independence. In an op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote that rather than celebrate slaveholders (34 of the 56 Signers, including Thomas Jefferson, owned slaves), we should celebrate resistance to slavery as personified by Douglass.

The renowned orator’s presence in Philadelphia dates back to his escape from bondage. He arrived by steamboat from Wilmington in 1838. We can bring Frederick Douglass to life by staging public readings of his iconic speech at places and sites associated with the abolitionist, including Independence Hall, Mother Bethel AME Church, Concert Hall, the Union League of Philadelphia and Camp William Penn. Douglass was delivering a lecture at National Hall when the news came about John Brown’s raid on Harpers Ferry.

At the same time, we should heed the advice that Douglass gave a Black activist shortly before his death: “Agitate! Agitate! Agitate!” Agitation means we resist Philadelphia insiders who presume to tell us how the United States Semiquincentennial should be commemorated. We should follow the blueprint of the July 4th Coalition which, in 1976, rallied between 30,000 and 40,000 people to protest the lack of diversity in official celebrations and the whitewashing of history.

You can read my op-ed, “This July 4th, let’s honor Frederick Douglass and ‘agitate’” here.

Black Music Appreciation Month 2022

President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Appreciation Month in 1979.

In a proclamation, President Joe Biden said:

 For generations, Black music has conveyed the hopes and struggles of a resilient people — spirituals mourning the original sin of slavery and later heralding freedom from bondage, hard truths told through jazz and the sounds of Motown during the Civil Rights movement, and hip-hop and rhythm and blues that remind us of the work that still lies ahead.  The music created by Black artists continues to influence musicians of all persuasions, entertain people of all backgrounds, and shape the story of our Nation.

As noted in the 1971 documentary “Black Music in America: From Then Till Now,” Black music is “one of the great artistic contributions to American culture. Black music in America began as the African drum beat and plantation song ignored and then suppressed by white culture.”

To explore the history of Black American music, check out the Black Music Project.

The Untold History of Memorial Day

Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first observed on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina. Thousands of African Americans, including the formerly enslaved, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, were led by children as they gathered to honor 257 Union soldiers who were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand of the city’s Washington Race Course.

The ancestors paid tribute to those who gave their lives by decorating their graves, hence Declaration Day.

Jazz Appreciation Month 2022

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. America’s classical music is appreciated around the world but in New Orleans, the city where jazz was born, there was a 100-year-old ban on jazz in the public schools. While the ban was honored in the breach, it was only officially lifted last month. The prohibition was white supremacists’ tacit acknowledgement that jazz is Black music.

In an interview with the Associated Press, four-time Grammy winner Robert Glasper said that African Americans are reclaiming jazz:

Absolutely, because it’s African-American music… our ancestors are the ones who birthed this music. Blood, sweat and tears. And we, as a people, have gotten away from it and other people have taken it and been able to capitalize off of it.

We’re just living our truth, and that’s what it is. And we are jazz (musicians) — because some people say, “What they’re doing is not jazz.” Yes, it is — it literally is. It’s just jazz with a heartbeat. It’s still alive. What you like is dead. What we’re doing is alive. And that’s the difference.

To borrow a phrase from Grammy-winning producer Swizz Beatz: Long live jazz!