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.

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Ken Burns’ latest film, “Country Music,” makes clear that African American music is at the root of the genre. Long before Lil Nas X, there was DeFord Bailey, Rufus “Tee Top” Payne, Charley Pride – and Ray Charles. Brother Ray’s 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain. The album and its lead single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson observed:

When Ray did “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before. He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.

In his autobiography, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, the country music pioneer wrote:

I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music. After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country.

The Grand Ole Opry “celebrates the songs of Ray Charles and the influence the revolutionary artist had on country music” in a television special, “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles.”

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Hosted by Opry member Darius Rucker, the star-studded salute features Boyz II Men, Cam, Brett Eldredge, Leela James, Jessie Key, Ronnie Milsap, Lukas Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Allen Stone, Travis Tritt, Charlie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood and Chris Young. The program will air on PBS stations nationwide so check your local listings.

Happy Birthday to John Coltrane

John Coltrane’s eighth studio album, Africa/Brass, was released in 1961. The tracks include “Song of the Underground Railroad.”

To celebrate Coltrane’s birthday (September 23, 1926), All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson will lead the Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Walking Tour: Green Book Edition. A travel guide, Green Book listings were effectively an Underground Railroad 2.0, a network of safe spaces where African Americans could avoid the indignities and humiliations of racial segregation.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

Green Book Philadelphia walking tour stops include:

  • National historic landmark where Coltrane first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie;
  • Supper club that was a hangout for the producers and musicians who created “The Sound of Philadelphia”;
  • Hotel that welcomed jazz luminaries to its stage from the 1940s to the 1980s, and where Coltrane recorded a live album;
  • Pep’s Musical Bar where Coltrane and other jazz and blues greats performed;
  • Jazz club that paid homage to postal workers and U.S. Postal Service;
  • Dive bar that was the setting for the Broadway play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”; and
  • Fraternal lodge where Bessie Smith’s funeral was held and an after-hours club was located on the top floor.

All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will be held on September 21 and 22. Join us as we talk and walk in the footsteps of a jazz giant.

#ThisPlaceMatters: Painted Bride Art Center

A year ago, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Painted Bride Art Center’s building, 230 Vine Street, for listing on the local register of historic places. The designation would have saved the city’s oldest alternative art space and one of the few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz heyday. Jazz on Vine, the longest, continuously running jazz series in Philadelphia, was started in 1975.

If 230 Vine Street had been designated a historic landmark, Isaiah Zagar’s “Skin of the Bride” mosaic that rings the exterior walls of the building, an artwork of recognized stature, would have been preserved.

Painted Bride - September 2019

Painted Bride - Sept. 2019

With the Commission’s controversial vote in hand, the Bride put the cultural landmark on the market. In a message, executive director Laurel Raczka wrote:

After much consideration, we have made the difficult decision to sell our building at 230 Vine. Let me be clear: The Painted Bride is NOT closing. With the proceeds of the building sale, we will secure a source of funds that will ensure the Bride can fulfill its central mission, which is to support artists who are committed to blazing paths of innovation that are transformative at the community level.

[…]

The Painted Bride is world-renowned as a vanguard institution for ground-breaking artists. We want to do everything possible to ensure that we perform that role for years to come.

Our current business model is unsustainable and hasn’t been sufficiently updated (emphasis added) to meet the needs of a transforming world and evolving audiences. We are committed to creating a new model that will allow the Bride to be increasingly responsive, flexible and agile in our rapidly changing times.

Founded in 1969, the Bride has received millions of dollars in charitable donations from local, state and federal taxpayers, foundations, corporations and individual donors. The current board of directors failed to sufficiently update its business model. Having brought this vanguard institution to the brink, the board now says it will ensure Painted Bride 2.0 is sustainable. Got it. Now tell it to the judge.

Orphans' Court Notice

The Bride is a nonprofit organization. The proposed sale of a “charitable asset” to a for-profit developer must be approved by the Orphans’ Court and Pennsylvania Attorney General Josh Shapiro. If the Bride’s petition is approved, Groom Investment LLC will demolish the artist-centered performance space and gallery, and destroy Zagar’s iconic murals. In their place, the developer will construct 16 cookie-cutter condos for the one percent.

Painted Bride Architectural Rendering

A diverse group of arts and culture leaders opposes the petition (full disclosure: I’m included in the group). Laurel Raczka says the Bride is “more than brick and mortar.” But place matters. 230 Vine Street is where culture was made. It’s where stories are kept. The iconic building keeps the stories in public memory and imagination.

The Orphans’ Court hearing is open to the public. If you believe this place matters, join us on Tuesday, September 10, 2019, at 10:00 a.m. in Courtroom 416 City Hall, Philadelphia, PA.

It ain’t over.

On Vacation

In September, I will lead a walking tour of Green Book sites in Philadelphia. The stops include the Douglass Hotel which offered transportation to Atlantic City, or more accurately, to Chicken Bone Beach.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

After complaints from white bathers, African Americans were restricted to a stretch of the Atlantic City beach near Convention Hall. The segregated area became known as Chicken Bone Beach.

Chicken Bone Beach Plaque2

This two-part audio doc provides an overview of Chicken Bone Beach and the entertainment district that became a magnet for black vacationers, day-trippers and luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.

For more info, visit Chicken Bone Beach.

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.

#1619Project: 400 Years of African American History

Four hundred years ago, a ship carrying the first enslaved Africans arrived in Jamestown, Virginia.

#400Years - Introduction of negro slavery into Virginia - NYPL Digital Collections

On August 13, 2019, The New York Times Magazine will launch “The 1619 Project.”

The 1619 Project
The entire issue of the magazine will be devoted to an examination of “the many ways the legacy of slavery continues to shape and define life in the United States.” The launch event is sold out. You can watch the free live stream here on Tuesday, August 13, at 7 p.m. E.T.