I am director of All That Philly Jazz, a place-based public history project that is documenting and contextualizing Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz. The project is at the intersection of art, public policy and cultural heritage preservation.
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.
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.
The recently released National Monument Audit produced by Monument Lab found that only Abraham Lincoln (193) and George Washington (171) have more public statues than Christopher Columbus (149).
At the height of the George Floyd protests, calls grew louder for Philadelphia to remove the Columbus statue in Marconi Plaza. So far, Mayor Jim Kenney has been stymied in his plan to remove the statue which has been encased in a plywood box since June 2020. On the eve of Indigenous Peoples’ Day, a judge issued an emergency order that the plywood covering must be removed immediately.
Mayor Kenney tweeted that statue supporters should do nothing until the City’s appeal is heard.
Meanwhile, President Joe Biden issued the first-ever White House proclamation commemorating Indigenous Peoples’ Day:
Since time immemorial, American Indians, Alaska Natives, and Native Hawaiians have built vibrant and diverse cultures — safeguarding land, language, spirit, knowledge, and tradition across the generations. On Indigenous Peoples’ Day, our Nation celebrates the invaluable contributions and resilience of Indigenous peoples, recognizes their inherent sovereignty, and commits to honoring the Federal Government’s trust and treaty obligations to Tribal Nations.
Our country was conceived on a promise of equality and opportunity for all people — a promise that, despite the extraordinary progress we have made through the years, we have never fully lived up to. That is especially true when it comes to upholding the rights and dignity of the Indigenous people who were here long before colonization of the Americas began. For generations, Federal policies systematically sought to assimilate and displace Native people and eradicate Native cultures. Today, we recognize Indigenous peoples’ resilience and strength as well as the immeasurable positive impact that they have made on every aspect of American society. We also recommit to supporting a new, brighter future of promise and equity for Tribal Nations — a future grounded in Tribal sovereignty and respect for the human rights of Indigenous people in the Americas and around the world.
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.
Two years ago my call to action to save the John Coltrane House generated pushback from folks who have been hanging around the historic landmark for decades and on whose watch the property deteriorated.
As jazz lovers commemorate Coltrane’s heavenly birthday on September 23, there’s cause for celebration: Coltrane’s Strawberry Mansion rowhouse is not under imminent threat of demolition by neglect. On May 25, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion Community Development Corporation was awarded $300,000 reimbursable grant under Pennsylvania’s Blight Remediation Program. Strawberry Mansion CDC will be reimbursed as costs are incurred.
According to state Rep. Donna Bullock, the funds will be used “to restore the currently blighted Coltrane House and its neighboring blighted properties which will expand the footprint of the Coltrane House to lead to the creation of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center.”
Truth be told, the state grant is a drop in the bucket of the funds needed to restore the blighted residential row, and establish a museum and community arts center. On May 3, 2021, the Strawberry Mansion CDC announced the completion of the John Coltrane Museum and Cultural Arts Center Site Feasibility Study undertaken by the Community Design Collaborative which provides pro bono preliminary design services to nonprofit organizations. Parenthetically, the Collaborative noted that renewed interest in the Coltrane House was “due to the building having been recently placed on the Preservation Pennsylvania’s 2020 Pennsylvania At Risk list.”
The Collaborative proposed three development options that require access to or ownership of neighboring properties. The costs range from $3,454,884 to $5,825,575. The estimates do not include the costs of acquisition, staff, collections, exhibitions, and programs.
The Coltrane House is located at 1511 N 33rd Street. 1509 N 33rd Street was sold to 1509 N 33rd St LLC for $235,000 on January 27, 2021. 1509 N 33rd St LLC transferred the deed to Bluebird Lending LLC for $0.00 on March 18, 2021. Bluebird Companies is a real estate organization that specializes in private lending, and “construction management in neighborhoods undergoing urban revitalization.”
1513 N 33rd Street is privately owned. After years of nonpayment, there are no delinquent property taxes. The property’s assessed value is $132,800. The Philadelphia Housing Authority owns 1515 N 33rd Street which has a market value of $439,700. PHA intends to convey the property to Strawberry Mansion CDC subject to approval by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and the financial feasibility of the Coltrane House Project.
The road to rehabilitation of the Coltrane House is long and winding. In the meantime, there are things we can do to signal a change is going to come. For instance, I recently reported illegal dumping to Philly 311.
Philadelphia has a chronic trash problem. So if you see illegal dumping on the sidewalk, you can submit a report to Philly 311. I also reported the unsealed window on the second floor of 1509 N 33rd Street which exposes the property to the elements and further water damage. The building code violation is a threat to the Coltrane House with which it shares a party wall. L&I “is actively working to solve the issue.”
Mary Lyerly Alexander, aka Cousin Mary, did her part. We must step up and do our part to ensure the jazz giant’s legacy is not erased from public memory.