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.
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.”
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.
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.
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?
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.”
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.
On September 22, 1862, President Abraham Lincoln issued a preliminary Emancipation Proclamation announcing that enslaved people in states still in rebellion would be free within 100 days, i.e., January 1, 1863.
On September 22, 2021, the Emancipation and Freedom Monument was unveiled on Brown’s Island, a public park in Richmond, Virginia, capitol of the states in rebellion. During the Civil War, the island was the headquarters of the Confederate States Laboratory which manufactured ammunition for the Confederate war effort.
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.