Women’s History Month: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”

I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.

The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.

Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:

Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records [1914], Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.

For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

Harriet Tubman@200

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Harriet Tubman, the most celebrated conductor on the Underground Railroad. Like most enslaved Black Americans, she did not know her date of her birth so we remember Harriet on the day of her death, March 10, 1913.

The Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection of Temple University Libraries is holding a two-day bicentennial celebration of the “Moses of Her People” on Tuesday, March 15 and Wednesday, March 16. The online events are free. Registration is encouraged.

Philadelphia is hosting the traveling exhibition, “Harriet Tubman – The Journey to Freedom,” by Wesley Wofford at City Hall through March 31, 2022.

Also at City Hall, there’s a multi-media exhibition, “Dreams of Freedom: The Threads That Hold Us Together,” on view through the end of March.

For information on Philadelphia’s Harriet Tubman 200th birthday celebration, go here.

Rivers of Rhythm 

For more than 400 years, music has powered African American resilience, resistance and joy. From the rhythmic beat of the African drum that was banned by enslavers to “Rhythm Nation,” music is how we got over.

To kick off Black History Month, the National Museum of African American Music presents Rivers of Rhythm. Made possible by Renasant Bank, the six-part docuseries traces the history of African American music from its roots in Africa to The Roots and hip-hop.

Rivers of Rhythm premiered on February 1.

New episodes of Rivers of Rhythm will be released weekly on Tuesday on American Songwriter’s YouTube channel.

Why Christian Street?

Historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, launched Negro History Week the second week of February 1926. Black history became a month-long celebration in 1976. Several Philadelphians are included on Woodson’s iconic broadside, Important Events and Dates in Negro History, including Richard Allen, Anthony Benezet, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Robert Purvis.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia erased 371 years of Black history and nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. I voiced opposition to the proposed Christian Street Historic District from the jump (here, here and here). February is the shortest month so I’ll keep it short: Why Christian Street? The most accomplished albeit largely unknown former resident of the proposed historic district, architect Julian F. Abele, did not identify as Negro. His biographer, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, told Smithsonian magazine, “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black. He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”

In Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, Wilson notes that Abele was not adverse to following in his brother Joseph’s footsteps but he was not light enough to pass for white. He wrote:

Abele’s racial denial approached delusion. He was both a cocoon with interstitial space for only himself and a shell to ward off unwelcome intrusions. It insulated his talent giving him precious time to mature and repelled the exigency of racism from subverting his ambition. He chose an existence that was neither black nor white. It was beige.

In view of his lifelong rejection of his racial identity, Abele would roll over in his grave at the notion that he would anchor a “Black-themed” historic district.

Abele’s great uncle, Absalom Jones, cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen who founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The historical markers memorializing this history are located at 6th and Lombard streets. Fact is, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River there are extant buildings on Lombard Street where Black history happened.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mother Bethel is central to African American history and culture. Henry O. Tanner, who is included on Woodson’s broadside, created a bas-relief of Bishop Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and the blacksmith shop where the first AME church was built.

I am once again asking: Why Christian Street?

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.

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.”