Respect, starring Academy Award®-winner Jennifer Hudson, opens on Friday, August 13, 2021.
The Queen of Soul’s gospel roots and civil rights activism ran deep. Her father, Rev. C. L. Franklin, was a civil rights leader who mentored a young Martin Luther King Jr. Ms. Franklin toured the country with Dr. King and the Southern Christian Leadership Conference and used her voice to “deliver music for social justice.”
Ms. Franklin supported the Black Panther Party and the Free Angela Movement.
Congregations and organizations across the country will participate in RESPECT Sunday, “a nationwide campaign of faith leaders who will preach, teach, and share about themes of faith, family and civil rights that were deeply woven into the fabric of Ms. Franklin’s story in their worship services on Sunday, August 8, 2021.”
General George Washington’s decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of Yorktown, aka Siege of Yorktown, was the turning point in the American Revolution. Yorktown, a North Philly neighborhood whose name is derived from the 1781 battle, is under siege.
The planned community was built between 1960 and 1969. Banker and developer Norman Denny acquired 153 acres of blighted blocks that were cleared by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Denny constructed 635 rowhouses that were marketed to first-time African American homebuyers with children. Yorktown provided suburban-style housing for Black families who did not have access to suburban tract houses due to discriminatory lending practices and residential segregation.
In an interview with Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places Community History Project, Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor and former congressman William H. Gray III said:
The church under the leadership of my father who was then the minister, Dr. William H. Gray Jr., got involved with the urban renewal project and joined forces with a man named Mr. Denny of the Lincoln [National] Bank … who had a radical idea. And the radical idea was that instead of building tenements, instead of building tall public housing, what he wanted to do was to build middle-income housing for homeownership. Everybody said you got to be crazy. This is one of the worst slum areas, inner-city, ghetto areas. African Americans don’t have money to buy houses.
Homebuyers included lawyer and civil rights activist Charles W. Bowser who is pictured raising the Yorktown flag. City Council proclaimed October 9, 2018 Charles W. Bowser Day “in recognition of his lifelong dedication to public service and his significant contributions to the African American community in Philadelphia.”
Grammy Award-winning singer Billy Paul lived on Kings Place.
Gospel pioneer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe lived on Master Street.
Edmund N. Bacon, then-executive director of the City Planning Commission, planned Yorktown. Landscape elements that Bacon introduced in Society Hill are featured in Yorktown. In a progress report to Mayor James H.J. Tate, Bacon wrote:
Denny has finally put landscaping and play equipment in three of the central squares. These are really remarkable and exciting. I have the feeling that this is a unique project and that nothing of its kind has ever been built. I think it is an achievement worthy of some attention.
The project is indeed worthy of attention. The Yorktown Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It is one of urbanist Bacon’s crowning achievements.
For two decades, Yorktown has attracted unwanted attention. The neighborhood is located immediately south of Temple University. In 2004, the Yorktown Community Organization, founded by Charles Bowser, sued 30 homeowners for illegal conversion of single-family homes into boarding/rooming houses for students. City Council subsequently amended the zoning code to create the North Central Philadelphia Overlay District to, i.a., “preserve and protect the area from the conversion of houses into multi-family buildings that have the potential to destabilize the area; and foster the preservation and development of this section of the City in accordance with its special character.”
Fast forward to today, proposed development projects have the potential to destabilize Yorktown with out-of-scale apartment buildings marketed to students and other transients. The neighborhood is low-rise, low-density by design.
In June, City Council passed legislation to amend the zoning code and create the Girard Avenue Overlay District which would establish height controls. Joe Grace, spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke, told PlanPhilly, “The Council President wants to control density along the corridor to protect historic neighborhoods like Yorktown and West Poplar that are adjacent to Girard Avenue. Too much density along the corridors impacts quality of life for the adjacent neighborhoods that are full of single-family homes and long-term residents.”
Black homeowners are fighting to preserve the setting and feeling of the Yorktown Historic District. To paraphrase Revolutionary War Commander John Paul Jones, they have just begun to fight.
Philadelphia is the best place to discuss race relations because there is more race prejudice here than in any other city in the United States. — W. E. B. Du Bois, 1927
City Council passed a one-year demolition moratorium for six blocks of Christian Street in the most gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia. The mayor is expected to sign the bill which is sponsored by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson who is under federal indictment.
The purpose of the moratorium is to give the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia time to prepare the nomination for the proposed Christian Street Historic District. Architect Julian Abele and Rev. Charles Tindley are the most notable residents of that stretch of Christian Street. Abele and Tindley lived on the 1500 block but gentrifiers are pushing to designate six blocks. As I told a reporter with PlanPhilly, the proposed historic district trivializes Black history in an effort to preserve the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced:
However, Faye Anderson, a local historic preservationist who has focused on saving vulnerable Black historical sites, said she opposed the effort.
She said the district was an “excuse” to preserve some statelier buildings in a gentrified neighborhood that has become majority-white in recent decades. Anderson said a blanket designation for a thematic district based on the presence of some wealthier African American residents for a period of time in an otherwise segregated neighborhood was “trivializing” to the city’s wider Black history.
Historic preservation is about storytelling. The period of significance of proposed Christian Street Historic District, aka Doctor’s Row, spans the Great Migration, the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II. Doctor’s Row would memorialize a minuscule number of Black professionals who moved on up from racially segregated blocks in the 7th Ward to racially segregated blocks with nicer rowhouses in the 30th Ward.
While the elites of Doctor’s Row were serving tea, NAACP Executive Secretary Carolyn Davenport Moore was serving justice. Prior to 1944, Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) consigned Black workers to jobs as porters, messengers or tracklayers. The positions of motorman and trolley operator were for white workers only. Moore organized protest marches. The NAACP filed complaints with the Fair Employment Practices Committee on the grounds PTC’s hiring practices violated Executive Order 8802 which banned discrimination in the defense industry.
The NAACP prevailed in the first civil rights battle of the modern era. Legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones was a drum major for justice. He was in the first group of eight African American trolley operators.
Philly Joe later moved to New York City where he likely spent time on Striver’s Row. The two blocks of rowhouses were home to, among others, jazz luminaries. Striver’s Row was designated the St. Nicholas Historic District in 1967 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Striver’s Row represents a Who’s Who of Black America. By contrast, Doctor’s Row has Black folks asking: Who dis?
But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.
The Smithsonian’s National Museum of African American History and Culture (NMAAHC) is celebrating Jazz Appreciation Month and National Poetry Month with online programs, including “The Power of Poetry Blog Series.” For information on African Americans’ contributions to today’s jazz and poetry landscape, visit NMAAHC.
Billie Holiday, née Eleanora Fagan, was born on April 7, 1915 at Philadelphia General Hospital. “Looking for Lady Day,” hosted and written by news anchor Tamala Edwards, is a fact-based portrait of the iconic singer who changed the game on and off stage.
The stops include the Academy of Music, Billie Holiday Walk of Fame plaque, and hotels where Lady Day stayed, including the hotel where she and her husband, Louis McKay, were arrested. The arrest is depicted in the biopic United States vs. Billie Holiday.
Our next-to-last stop is the former location of the Green Book site where Billie Holiday performed four months before her death. Emerson’s Tavern is the setting for the Broadway play, “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill.” Audra McDonald won the 2014 Tony Award for Best Performance by an Actress in a Leading Role in a Play.
The dates of the walking tour will be announced. To be added to the mailing list for updates, contact Faye Anderson at phillyjazzapp[@]gmail.com.
As made clear in his remarks before the 1964 Berlin Jazz Festival, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. understood the power of jazz to bring about social change.
Sadly, Dr. King was assassinated on April 4, 1968 while standing on the balcony of the Hotel Lorraine in Memphis, Tennessee. I want to kick off Jazz Appreciation Month by remembering the Prince of Peace in song.
Computer scientist Joy Buolamwini, founder of Algorithmic Justice League, had to wear a white mask to have her face detected by a facial recognition program. Buolamwini’s groundbreaking research is showcased in the documentary Coded Bias.
Coded Bias premiered on PBS on March 22, 2021. The documentary is available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App.
March is Women’s History Month. The Bible says a woman’s hair is her crown and glory. But for Black women, their natural hair is vilified. The current debate over natural hair has its roots in slavery. First enacted in 1786, Tignon laws forced free and enslaved Black women to cover their hair.
Fast forward to today, Black hair is still policed. Black people face discrimination and micro-aggressions because of the hair that grows naturally from their head and how they choose to style it.
One of the earliest challenges to modern Tignon customs happened in 1987. Cheryl Tatum was a cashier at Hyatt Regency Crystal City in Virginia. The personnel director, Betty McDermott, told Tatum to unbraid her hair because company policy banned “extreme and unusual hair styles.” McDermott said:
I can’t understand why you would want to wear your hair like that anyway. What would the guests think if we allowed you all to wear your hair like that?
Afros are protected under the Civil Rights Act. But if a Black woman wore a regal updo, she could face hair discrimination in all but eight states.
Viewed through the white gaze, natural hair is considered “unkempt” and “unprofessional.” But it’s not just Black women. Black men and Black children also face hair discrimination. A Black teenager was told to cut his dreadlocks or forfeit a wrestling match.
Beyoncé won 2021 Grammy for Best R&B Performance for “Black Parade.” A Black woman or girl could face hair discrimination for wearing the natural hair styles depicted in her music video.
Black voters delivered the White House and the Senate majority to Democrats. They should deliver for Black people and end hair discrimination by passing the CROWN Act, Creating a Respectful and Open World for Natural Hair.
It has been nearly 62 years since Billie Holiday passed away. Hundreds of dissertations, books, films and documentaries later, she is a blank canvas onto which fans and detractors project their hopes, dreams and issues. I see a strong Black woman whose back did not bend.
From an early age, Billie was failed by the institutions that should have protected her. She was racially profiled and harassed by the FBI and hounded by the Philadelphia Police Department. From where Billie sat, the whole of the United States was arrayed her. But still she persisted. She didn’t give a damn what folks thought about her drug abuse, sexuality or string of no-good men.
Billie was a popular club artist and concert artist but she harbored no illusion about her audiences. She famously said, “They come to see me fall on my ass.” While there, she demanded their attention when she sang “Strange Fruit,” the anti-lynching protest song that took a toll on her livelihood and ultimately her life.
The Billie Holiday historical marker at 1409 Lombard Street piqued my interest in investigating her story beyond the marker. One of Billie’s Philadelphia stories is told in the new biopic starring Andra Day and directed by Lee Daniels.
The United States vs. Billie Holiday is now streaming on Hulu.
I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.
Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.
In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:
Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.
On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.
The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.