Philadelphia’s 20th Century ‘Underground Railroad’

Victor Hugo Green, publisher of The Negro Motorist Green Book, was a visionary.

Victor_Hugo_Green_1892-1960_in_1956

Green envisioned a network of safe and welcoming places for African Americans. First published in 1936, the travel guide targeted the New York City metropolitan area. By 1938, the Green Book included all of the states east of the Mississippi River.

Green Book - 1938

Over time, there were thousands of listings across the United States, Canada, the Caribbean, Mexico, South America and Europe. The highest concentration was in cities with large African American populations including Atlantic City, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Chicago and Philadelphia.

Green Book Sites - 1956

Check out this WHYY podcast focusing on Philadelphia’s extant Green Book sites, “Philly’s ‘20th century Underground Railroad’ hides in plain sight.”

Visualizing Slavery

The oldest-known photograph of enslaved black people with cotton was recently purchased at auction for $324,500 on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

Visualizing Slavery

Sabrina Imbler reports:

The image is simple haunting. Ten enslaved African-American people stand in front of a two-story, white clapboard building, some with baskets of cotton on top of their heads. A boy bows his head in the lower-left corner, his back to the camera. It’s a quarter-plate daguerreotype, a little larger than a deck of cards but brimming with details visible only when magnified: the individual leaves of the plants encircling a well, the woven wicker of the baskets. The antebellum photograph, believed to date back to the 1850s, is the oldest-known image of enslaved people with cotton, the commodity that they were forced to harvest.

Recently, at Cowan’s American History auction, the Hall Family Foundation purchased the photograph for $324,500, on behalf of the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art in Kansas City, Missouri. “I had never seen an image like this before,” says Jane Aspinwall, the curator of photography at the Nelson-Atkins Museum.

Images of enslaved African-American people are relatively rare, and were almost always taken at the behest of the slaveholder, according to critic Stephen Best in “Neither Lost nor Found: Slavery and the Visual Archive,” published in a 2011 issue of the journal Representations. “However exhaustive one’s catalog of the visual archive of slavery, it will always be lacking in works by slaves themselves,” he writes.

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Visualizing Racism

The Civil War ended on April 9, 1865 when Confederate General Robert E. Lee surrendered to Union General Ulysses S. Grant at Appomattox Court House. Still, the fight over the meaning of the South’s Lost Cause continues.

Picture this: Former South Carolina governor Nikki Haley said the Confederate Flag was hunky-dory until Dylan Roof “hijacked” it from the descendants of slave owners and their sympathizers for whom it symbolized “service, and sacrifice and heritage.”

Haley’s spin is fake news. William T. Thompson long ago spilled the tea on the meaning of the Confederate flag.

Confederate-Flag-Design

The symbol of white supremacy was weaponized during the Jim Crow era as African Americans fought for equal protection under the law and civil rights.

Confederate Flag - Don't You Wish You Were White

Confederate Flag - We Want a White School
A recent issue of the Washington Post Magazine is devoted to photography that documents struggles with racism. Washington Post Columnist Eugene Robinson wrote in the introduction:

Racism is this nation’s telltale heart beating ominously in the collective subconscious. From time to time we come to believe we have expiated and silenced it once and for all. But then it is back — changed, perhaps attenuated, but unmistakable.

[…]

This is how the war against racism goes: progress, setback, optimism, despair — a cycle that frustratingly repeats and yet somehow inches us forward. Racism may be worse than in the recent past, but the individual and collective punishment it metes out is a shadow of what black Americans suffered a half-century ago. We have no choice but to believe that the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. was right when he said that the arc of the moral universe is long but bends toward justice. We have somehow taken a detour, however, and must find our way back to the true path.

This issue is devoted to photography that documents this moment — not just our external struggle with racism, but the internal struggles as well. Some of the images are beautiful and unsettling. Some are jarring. If some make us uncomfortable, that is progress. An easy conversation about racism is not a real conversation at all.

The full issue is available here.

Harriet Tubman

Harriet Tubman, the fearless Underground Railroad conductor, Combahee River Raid leader and Civil War veteran, is experiencing a renaissance. By contrast, “Harriet,” the movie, opened to mixed reviews and controversy. Some African Americans called for a boycott of the biopic.

Tubman’s contemporary and fellow badass, Frederick Douglass, knew her story was destined to be told. On August 29, 1868, Douglass wrote:

Dear Harriet:

I am glad to know that the story of your eventful life has been written by a kind lady, and that the same is soon to be published. You ask for what you do not need when you call upon me for a word of commendation. I need such words from you far more than you can need them from me, especially where your superior labors and devotion to the cause of the lately enslaved of our land are known as I know them.

The difference between us is very marked. Most that I have done and suffered in the service of our cause has been in public, and I have received much encouragement at every step of the way. You, on the other hand, have labored in a private way. I have wrought in the day – you in the night. I have had the applause of the crowd and the satisfaction that comes of being approved by the multitude, while the most that you have done has been witnessed by a few trembling, scarred, and foot-sore bondmen and women, whom you have led out of the house of bondage, and whose heartfelt, “God bless you,” has been your only reward.

The midnight sky and the silent stars have been the witnesses of your devotion to freedom and of your heroism. Excepting John Brown – of sacred memory – I know of no one who has willingly encountered more perils and hardships to serve our enslaved people than you have. Much that you have done would seem improbable to those who do not know you as I know you. It is to me a great pleasure and a great privilege to bear testimony for your character and your works, and to say to those to whom you may come, that I regard you in every way truthful and trustworthy.

Your friend,

Frederick Douglass

Pennsylvania National Action Network Calls on Sen. Warren to Support Removal of Frank Rizzo Monument

When I moved to Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police commissioner, had been dead for nearly two decades. Still, Philadelphians spoke about him with a passion and anger that was visceral. Rizzo’s legacy includes the untreated trauma that he inflicted on the African American community.

As I researched Philadelphia’s jazz history, I heard stories about how Rizzo harassed jazz musicians and club owners. So it is shocking that a monument of a man who was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience” is at the gateway to municipal services.

#FrankRizzo - Yarnbomb - 2012

I looked at the story behind the story and learned the Rizzo monument was financed by his family. The public was never asked whether the vanity project was an appropriate monument for the City of Philadelphia. Not only was the public not asked, the vanity project was unveiled on January 1, 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event that for decades featured marchers in blackface.

#FrankRizzo - NYT - Mummers Parade

On the day Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced his endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was reported Kenney has no plan to remove the Rizzo monument from Thomas Paine Plaza. Warren supports removal of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.

I join Pennsylvania State Chapter National Action Network in calling on Warren to support removal of the monument of Frank Rizzo, a racist cop who trampled on civil rights, urged supporters to “vote white” and traumatized the African American community. You can read the press release here.

Public Memory and Place Matter

In a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, the writers asked: Whose history gets recognized in our public spaces?

Ultimately, the fight over Barry Farm is about more than those last 32 buildings left standing. It signifies a larger struggle over representation in our physical spaces, one that has only intensified as cities become more divided, unaffordable, and unequal. This struggle has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from efforts to remove racist memorials from public plazas to movements to protect Black culture on rapidly gentrifying blocks. Within all these actions is one critical, underlying message: Black history matters.

In Philadelphia, our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.

Henry Minton House - Inquirer

Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. In a news article, Usdan said, “Because the city’s so rich in history and has all these great historic buildings and amazing places where you want to congregate, it’s exactly what the demographic moving to Philly wants.”

For this developer, black history is not American history. And black folks are not included in Usdan’s vision for a changing city since he is building for “the demographic moving to Philly.”

First they displace us. Then they erase us.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

The National Museum for African American History and Culture’s exhibition “Power of Place” underscores that place matters:

People make places even as places change people. Places are secured by individual and collective struggle and spirit. Place is about movement and migration and dis-placement. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, and where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time.

On October 22, PlanPhilly is holding a panel discussion, “Place, Preservation and Public Memory in Philadelphia.” All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson is a panelist, along with Paul Farber, Ori Feibush and Karen Olivier. The event is free but you must register. To reserve your spot, go here.

International Day for Remembrance of the Slave Trade and Its Abolition

The International Day for the Remembrance of the Slave Trade and its Abolition was first observed in Haiti in 1998. UNESCO designated August 23 because it marks the beginning of the 1791 slave rebellion in Santo Domingo (today Haiti and the Dominican Republic) led by Toussaint L’Ouverture.

Louverture

This year’s observance coincides with the 400th anniversary of the landing of the first enslaved Africans in Point Comfort, Virginia. This 3D model of a slave ship shows the conditions under which the ancestors were transported across the Atlantic Ocean.

UNESCO Director General Audrey Azoulay said:

The Slave Route Project, launched by UNESCO in 1994, has made it possible to identify the ethical, cultural and socio-political issues of this painful history. By developing a multidisciplinary approach, which links historical, memorial, creative, educational and heritage dimensions, this project has contributed to enriching our knowledge of the slave trade and spreading a culture of peace. On this International Day, UNESCO invites everyone, including public authorities, civil society, historians, researchers and ordinary citizens, to mobilize in order to raise awareness about this history that we share and to oppose all forms of modern slavery.

Jazz bassist and composer Marcus Miller, a two-time Grammy-winner, is UNESCO Artist for Peace. I used to live in Dakar, Senegal. I spent many afternoons on Gorée Island at the Maison des Esclaves (House of Slaves) staring out the “Door of No Return.”

Door of No Return - Goree Island

Miller’s composition “Gorée” captures my feelings of anger, remembrance and determination to never forget.

For the month of October, an 80-foot-long, 18th century “ghost ship” will be on display on the Delaware River in Philadelphia.

Slave Ghost Ship2

For info about the holographic installation, visit the Delaware River Waterfront Arts Program.