Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared September International Underground Railroad Month in 2019. More freedom seekers fled from bondage in Maryland than from any other state. September was chosen because it was the month that Frederick Douglass (September 3, 1838) and Harriet Tubman (September 17, 1849) took their flight to freedom.
In 2020, Pennsylvania was one of eleven states that recognized International Underground Railroad Month. From Adams County to Warren County, Pennsylvania was a hub of organized resistance to slavery.
Hundreds of fleeing bondmen passed through Bucks County where there were numerous Underground Railroad stations, particularly in the boroughs of Quakertown, Buckingham and New Hope. Stationmasters included George Corson, Mahlon Linton, Jonathan Magill, and the Paxson and Pierce families. According to Dr. Charles L. Blockson, a small group of free blacks who settled in New Hope used Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church, founded circa 1818, as a hiding place for the self-emancipated. In his book, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Blockson notes the “well-concealed settlement was known as ‘Darkeytown.'”
Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church Cemetery is the final resting place for some formerly enslaved, including Henry Lee, and Rachel Moore and two of her children.
Jesse Crooks, an independent researcher and archivist, has done extensive research on Mount Moriah. He shared Edward H. Magill’s remarks before the Bucks County Historical Society on January 18, 1898. Magill, second president of Swarthmore College and son of an Underground Railroad stationmaster, recounted:
Sadly, Moore’s final resting place has been abandoned. Jesse Crooks and I are collaborating to save Mount Moriah Cemetery from decades of neglect. Burial grounds matter. They are places where the ancestors were honored and accorded the dignity and respect in death that were denied them in life.
Help may be on the way. The “African American Burial Grounds Study Act,” introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), unanimously passed in the Senate on December 20, 2020. Sen. Brown is expected to reintroduce the bill which would help identify, preserve and restore Black burial grounds. In a letter in support of the Senate bill, a national coalition of organizations representing, i.a., preservationists, historians, archaeologists and conservationists wrote:
For information on how you can help ensure the ancestors’ graves are kept clean, contact Faye Anderson at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Philadelphia is in the throes of a demolition crisis. In #Demodelphia, nothing is sacred.
Gentrifiers in Graduate Hospital, the city’s most gentrified neighborhood, are concerned that developers are erasing the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. To preserve their streetscape – and property values – they propose that a stretch of Christian Street be designated a historic district. They unilaterally determined the period of significance for Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district is 1910 to 1945. They blithely erased 271 years of Black history. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639.
Tellingly, in “Philadelphia’s African American Heritage: A Brief Historic Context Statement for the Preservation Alliance’s Inventory of African American Historic Sites (2009),” Dana Dorman wrote:
Meanwhile, the large influx of southern blacks into Philadelphia and other northern urban centers helped spur a new flourishing of African American culture from the 1910s to 1940s. Encouraged to seek inspiration in their own history and experiences, artists like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Marian Anderson, John Coltrane and Paul Robeson helped to promote black self-determination and equality through their art.
Philadelphia is home to Mother Bethel AME Church, William Still House, Robert Purvis House, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, Marian Anderson House Museum, Paul Robeson House, Black National Historic Landmarks, including the Johnson House, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House and John Coltrane House, and the Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University, the first HBCU. Yet the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district. The character-defining features of “Black Doctors Row” were classism and colorism, a legacy of slavery.
By the end of the 1920s, Bessie Smith was the highest paid Black performer. She lived on Christian Street but not on Black Doctors Row. The Empress of the Blues’ skin tone was too dark.
The Wander Inn was the last place where Bessie Smith performed in Philadelphia before she was killed in a car accident in Mississippi. The Green Book site was owned by Forrest White Woodard, founder ofThe Philadelphia Independent. Published from 1931 to 1971, at one point it was the Black newspaper with the widest circulation. Woodard was the richest Black man in Philadelphia in the 1930s.
Philadelphia’s Black elite dates back to the eighteenth century. Under Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, slavery did not end in the state until 1850. James Forten was one of the wealthiest men in antebellum Philadelphia. Was that “real evidence of progress?”
Dr. Charles L. Blockson is the leading authority on Black history in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. His books include Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers and Philadelphia: 1639-2000. A search for “Black Doctors Row” on Temple University Libraries Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection returned no results. Apparently ThePhiladelphia Tribune is the only source for Black Doctors Row. During the period of significance, the newspaper catered to “Old Philadelphians,” e.g., Bustills, Montiers and Bowsers. Kathryn Fambro Woodard was Philadelphia’s first female publisher. She took over The Philadelphia Independent after the death of her husband. In a 1984 interview, Mrs. Woodard said, “The Tribune was more of a sensational paper, and The Independent was more of a community paper.”
To be clear, some Black notables and professionals lived on Christian Street. However, many more lived on Lombard Street, and in West and North Philadelphia. The reference book, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent,” was first published in 1915. The First Edition included 17 Philadelphians, none of whom lived on Christian Street; two lived on Lombard Street.
The Sixth Edition, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 1941-1945,” included 11 Philadelphians, two of whom lived on Christian Street – John Cornelius Asbury and Agnes Berry Montier, MD. Asbury, a lawyer and state legislator, was married to Ida Elizabeth Bowser Asbury, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Montier was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple University.
Realtor, civil rights leader and philanthropist Addie W. Dickerson was listed in the Sixth Edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America.” Dickerson lived in West Philly. Her office was located at 16th and Bainbridge streets.
Bainbridge Street is two blocks south of South Street which during the period of significance was the center of Black Philadelphia. The commercial hub and entertainment district is memorialized in novels and song.
While the “light, bright, and damn near white” crowd was putting on the Ritz on Christian Street, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were putting on a show on South Street.
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.
This is your annual reminder that jazz is Black music. The demographics of those who get gigs, grants, fellowships, teaching opportunities, etc., are radically different from those who created jazz. But don’t get it twisted. They are enjoying the fruit of a tree which they didn’t plant. Jazz pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture for the slow learners.
A race man, Duke Ellington said, “Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part. … I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.”
A 1959 film, The Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”
The film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010. The films selected are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture.”
The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639. Philadelphia was the center of organized resistance to slavery. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture shows that the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.
In a city with Black National Historic Landmarks and National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, gentrifiers in the most gentrified neighborhood have proposed that six blocks – 1400 to 2000 Christian Street – be designated Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on this stretch of Christian Street are largely unknown but they lived in elegant townhouses. The 1300 block of Christian Street is not included in the proposed historic district because it is lined with basic rowhouses. The Bessie Smith House is located at 1319 Christian Street.
Philadelphia has a demolition crisis. Gentrifiers are exploiting Black history to preserve the historic fabric of the blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. If it is about Black history and culture, how do you exclude the Empress of the Blues? Download my statement on the proposed “Black-themed” historic district here.
There are new documentaries (here, here and here) and a hip-hop tribute.
On June 2, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian magazine will hold a virtual panel discussion, “Historically Speaking: In Remembrance of Greenwood,” focusing on the development of Black Wall Street, the events leading up to the one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, and the Black community’s resilience. The event is free but registration is required. To register, go here.
May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. The former Douglass Hotel matters to me. Built in 1926, the Douglass Hotel was first listed in the Green Book in 1938. The property was added to the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places in 1995. The historical marker out front notes that when Billie Holiday was “[i]n this city, she often lived here.”
The Douglass Hotel was a safe haven for Black travelers. While the hotel rooms were basic, the basement was magical. For nearly four decades, and several ownership and name changes, the basement space played host to jazz greats from Cannonball Adderley to Joe Zawinul. In the 1950s it was known as the Rendezvous Club. In the 1960s, it was renamed the Showboat. In the 1970s, it was the Bijou Café. This door leads down to the basement where Sidney Bechet, John Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums.
The future Queen of Soul performed in the basement of the Douglass Hotel on January 2, 1961. In Higher Ground: Stevie Wonder, Aretha Franklin, Curtis Mayfield, and the Rise and Fall of American Soul, John Wilson, a pianist for the legendary Clara Ward and the Ward Singers, recalled:
Aretha Franklin came to Philly to sing at the Showboat Club on Lombard Street. After checking in at the hotel upstairs over the club, she took a cab over to Mom Ward’s house to get connected to familiar souls. She was a little nervous about breaking into pop singing. That night Clara, me, and Rudy (the Wards’ chauffeur) went to the Showboat to catch Aretha’s performance. The only people familiar with the name Aretha Franklin were gospel people, who weren’t about to show up. They were angry at her crossing over to pop. When we went in the door we heard that wonderful voice and saw that it was being wasted on an almost empty house.
Sixty years later, there will be full houses to see the movie RESPECT starring Academy Award® Winner Jennifer Hudson as Aretha Franklin.
RESPECT will be in theaters in August. If the movie lives up to the trailer, a second Oscar might be in Jennifer Hudson’s future.
On Mother’s Day 1985, the City of Philadelphia, under the “leadership” of Mayor W. Wilson Sr., dropped a bomb in a residential neighborhood, killing 11 Black people, including five children. Wilson stood by as his police commissioner and fire commissioner decided to let the fire burn.
Adding fuel to the fire, we now know the remains of at least one of the children, Katricia “Tree” Africa, were stored at University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology and shuttled back and forth between UPenn and Princeton University for research without the consent of the family. A week ago, retired anthropology professor Alan Mann said he had not seen the remains in more than a decade. Mann told The Philadelphia Inquirer:
I would’ve given them back years ago, if anyone had asked me. There’s absolutely no reason for us to keep them. They should be given back.
The “body snatcher” lied. Mann has turned the remains of Tree Africa over to a Black-owned funeral home. The Inquirer reports:
The remains of a young girl killed in the MOVE bombing were delivered to a West Philadelphia funeral home on Friday by an anthropologist who had been in possession of them.
Alan Mann, a former University of Pennsylvania anthropology professor hired by a city commission to identify the remains in the 1980s, confirmed Friday that he gave the remains — a pelvic bone and part of a femur believed to be from Tree Africa — to the Terry Funeral Home.
Gregory Burrell, the chief executive of the funeral home, said Friday morning he picked up the remains from Mann’s home in New Jersey.
The Penn Museum and the University of Pennsylvania apologize to the Africa Family and the members of our community for allowing human remains recovered from the MOVE house to be used for research and teaching, and for retaining the remains for far too long.
Reuniting the remains with the Africa Family is our goal, and I am in direct conversation with them. The Africa Family and our community have experienced profound emotional distress as a result of the news that human remains from the horrific 1985 bombing of the MOVE house were at the Penn Museum and this fact has urgently raised serious questions: Why were the remains at the Museum in the first place? Why were they used for teaching purposes? And, most importantly, what are we going to do to resolve this situation?
In 2018, Philadelphia named a street after the mayor who set in motion the MOVE bombing and the still unfolding disrespect of Black lives.
On May 7, 2021, Philadelphia City Council Committee on Parks, Recreation, and Cultural Affairs will hold a hearing on the city’s landmarks and monuments review process.
Street names are also reminders of anti-Black racism and bigotry. Goode is forever associated with the wanton disregard of Black lives. In this moment of racial reckoning and restorative justice, the City of Philadelphia should erase W. Wilson Goode Sr.’s name from public memory.
I recently checked out SEPTA’s “Portal to Discovery” art installation on view at the subway station closest to Independence Hall. When it is safe to go maskless outdoors, I will lead walking tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. The starting point is right above SEPTA’s 5th Street/Independence Hall station so I was eager to see whether any of the historic figures that I talk about are depicted. I was happy to see many are, including Still, Jane Johnson, Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass.
My happiness turned to dismay when I noticed Douglass’ first name is spelled “Fredrick.”
Why didn’t anyone notice the misspelling before the mural was installed? As it turns out, Tom Judd learned about the misspelling in February. Judd then concocted a story that the misspelling was intentional so that he would not have to admit his mistake. In the midst of the national reckoning on race, a white artist effectively said eff it. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:
Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.
He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.
For his “narrative” to make sense, the student’s teacher would not have caught the spelling error. To save face, Judd was willing to cast aspersions on Philadelphia’s teachers. This is white privilege in action. The real narrative is a story of indifference to Black history and the lack of diversity at the Philadelphia Art Commission which approved the design.
The misspelling has been corrected but “Frederick” sticks out like a sore thumb.
I recognize that 99.9% of those who view the mural will not notice the patch. But for me, it will remain a sore point. From the New York Times to student newspapers, misspelled names are routinely corrected. Yet a white artist, who was paid $200,000 in taxpayers’ money, apparently thought it was no big deal that he misspelled the name of a Black icon and seminal figure in American history.