Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

A Quest for Parity in Historic Preservation and Public Art

What happens when the institutions making the decisions about removing the Christopher Columbus statue from public view are themselves the legacy of systemic racism?

In my WHYY/PlanPhilly essay, I wrote you get the spectacle of the Philadelphia Historical Commission denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. Commission members know the wealthy developer plans to demolish the building to construct cookie-cutter apartments for the “demographic moving to Philly.”

Seven weeks ago, Mayor Jim Kenney announced his desire to remove the Christopher Columbus statue from South Philadelphia’s Marconi Plaza. The move came in response to violent protests against anyone who dared to challenge the controversial Italian explorer’s place in colonial history. In a tweet, Mayor Jim Kenney said, “Part of reckoning with the legacy of systemic racism means reconsidering what figures deserve to be commemorated in our public spaces.”

Mayor Jim Kenney - Systemic Racism Tweet - June 24, 2020

But what happens when the institutions doing the reckoning – Philadelphia Historical Commission and Philadelphia Art Commission – are themselves the legacy of systemic racism and racial exclusion?

[…]

At the Historical Commission, the white gaze is the default standard for historical or cultural significance. Implicit bias led to the spectacle of commissioners overruling the unanimous vote of the Committee on Historic Designation and denying protection to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places where John Brown laid his head before the Harpers Ferry Raid. While acknowledging the property meets the statutory criteria for designation, the Commission ruled the façade is not “recognizable” because of an 1894 renovation that concealed the original building.

#HenryMinton House - #PhilaHistorical

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Alexander Hamilton, Slavery, and First Bank of the United States

A live-recording of the musical “Hamilton” was filmed at the Richard Rodgers Theatre in June 2016. The original Broadway production is now available on Disney+ streaming platform.

The film has brought attention to the national bank that Secretary of the Treasury Alexander Hamilton proposed in 1790. A year later, Congress granted a 20-year charter for the First Bank of the United States. Thomas Willing, who arguably was still a slaveholder, was the national bank’s first president.

Hamilton throws shade on Thomas Jefferson who opposes the bank charter:

A civics lesson from a slaver. Hey neighbor,
Your debts are paid cuz you don’t pay for labor.

The bank charter was not renewed. Instead, the assets of the First Bank of the United States were liquidated. According to VISIT PHILADELPHIA®, Hamilton “never set foot inside of the structure.” But a slaver, Stephen Girard, did. Girard purchased the property in 1812.

Stephen Girard

Now known as “The Bank of Stephen Girard,” the structure was later renamed Girard National Bank.

Sanborn Fire Insurance Map - Girard National Bank

The National Historic Landmark has been closed for decades. It was opened to the public for one day in 2018.

First Bank of the United States - Facebook - June 30, 2018

The pop-up exhibit curated by Drexel University’s Lenfest Center for Cultural Partnerships made no mention of Girard. A National Park Service ranger told me Independence Historical Trust wants to focus on Hamilton and financial literacy. However, facts are stubborn things. Slaver Girard’s name is engraved in the glass dome that was added when the interior was redesigned in 1902.

First Bank of the United States - Owned and Occupied by Stephen Girard - June 30, 2018

According to his will, Girard owned at least 30 slaves (h/t Penn & Slavery Project). In the course of digging the foundation for a new subway station in 1911, Girard’s slave pen was uncovered.

Girard slave pens.

Girard’s slave dungeon matches the description of a slave pen in “Slave Life in Georgia: A Narrative of the Life, Sufferings, and Escape of John Brown, a Fugitive Slave, Now in England” published in 1854.

John Brown Slave Narrative - New Orleans Slave Pen

Stephen Girard Slave Pen Discovery - Chicago Tribune, October 11, 1909 - Overlay

In 2018, Friends of Independence National Historical Park (renamed Independence Historical Trust) was awarded an $8 million grant from the Redevelopment Assistance Capital Program to restore the First Bank.

Gov. Tom Wolf Tweet - September 28, 2018

Pennsylvania Gov. Tom Wolf said:

Today, I am proud to be here to announce that the commonwealth has made a commitment to support the reopening of this historic landmark. The state’s investment will help reopen the central bank that once served as the foundation to modern United States fiscal policy, into a museum.

There was no mention of slavery or Stephen Girard. As the nation grapples with the long overdue reckoning on racial injustice, taxpayers’ money must not be used to whitewash history. Girard’s nearly 100-year association with the historic landmark is the untold story behind the neoclassical facade. If Independence Historical Trust ignores the building’s history — and Alexander Hamilton’s involvement with slavery — we will tell the rest of the story.

To be added to the mailing list for updates, send your name and email address to Faye Anderson at andersonatlarge@gmail.com.

Historic Preservation and Racial Justice

All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson was recently interviewed by the Advisory Council on Historic Preservation. The federal agency “promotes the preservation, enhancement, and sustainable use of our nation’s diverse historic resources, and advises the President and the Congress on national historic preservation policy.” The following is an excerpt from the interview.

What led you to your field?
I am a lifelong social justice activist. But I am an “accidental” preservationist. My interest in historic preservation was piqued by the historical marker that notes Billie Holiday “often lived here” when she was in Philadelphia. I went beyond the marker and learned that “here” was the Douglass Hotel. I wanted to know why Lady Day stayed in a modest hotel when a luxury hotel, the Bellevue-Stratford (now the Bellevue Philadelphia), is located just a few blocks away. The Douglass Hotel was first listed in The Negro Motorist Green Book in 1938. The Green Book was a travel guide that helped African Americans navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

How does what you do relate to historic preservation?
There are few extant buildings associated with Philadelphia’s jazz legacy. In cities across the country, jazz musicians created a cultural identity that was a stepping stone to the Civil Rights Movement. All That Philly Jazz is a crowdsourced project that is documenting untold or under-told stories. At its core, historic preservation is about storytelling. The question then becomes: Whose story gets told? The buildings that are vessels for African American history and culture typically lack architectural significance. While unadorned, the buildings are places where history happened. They connect the past to the present.

Why do you think historic preservation matters?
For me, historic preservation is not solely about brick-and-mortar. I love old buildings. I also love the stories old buildings hold. To borrow a phrase from blues singer Little Milton, if walls could talk, they would tell stories of faith, resistance, and triumph. Historic preservation is about the power of public memory. It’s about staking African Americans’ claim to the American story. A nation preserves the things that matter and black history matters. It is, after all, American history.

What courses do you recommend for students interested in this field?
Historic preservation does not exist in a vacuum. The built environment reflects social inequities. I recommend students take courses that will help them understand systemic racism and how historic preservation perpetuates social inequities. In an essay published earlier this year in The New Yorker, staff writer Casey Cep observed: “To diversify historic preservation, you need to address not just what is preserved but who is preserving it—because, as it turns out, what counts as history has a lot to do with who is doing the counting.”

Places associated with African Americans have been lost to disinvestment, urban planning, gentrification and implicit bias. For instance, the Philadelphia Historical Commission rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register despite a unanimous vote by the Committee on Historic Designation. The Commission said the nomination met the criteria for designation but the property is not “recognizable” (read: lacked integrity). Meanwhile, properties in Society Hill with altered or new facades have been added to the local register.

Do you have a favorite preservation project? What about it made it special?
Robert Purvis was a co-founder of the American Anti-Slavery Society, the Library Company of Colored People and the Pennsylvania Anti-Slavery Society. By his own estimate, he helped 9,000 self-emancipated black Americans escape to the North.

The last home in which the abolitionist lived is listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places. The property has had the same owner since 1977. As the Spring Garden neighborhood gentrified, the owner wanted to cash in and sell the property to developers who planned to demolish it. The property is protected, so he pursued demolition by neglect. Over the years, the owner racked up tens of thousands of dollars in housing code violations and fines. In January 2018, the Spring Garden Community Development Corporation petitioned the Common Pleas Court for conservatorship in order to stabilize the property. The petition was granted later that year. A historic landmark that was on the brink of collapse was saved by community intervention.

Can you tell us what you are working on right now?
The John Coltrane House, one of only 67 National Historic Landmarks in Philadelphia, is deteriorating before our eyes. In collaboration with the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition and Jazz Bridge, I nominated the historic landmark for inclusion on 2020 Preservation At Risk. The nomination was successful. As hoped, the listing garnered media attention. Before the coronavirus lockdown, several people contacted me and expressed interest in buying the property. The conversations are on pause. I am confident that whether under current “ownership” (the owner of record is deceased), new ownership or conservatorship, the rowhouse where Coltrane composed “Giant Steps” and experienced a spiritual awakening will be restored to its former glory.

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Traveling While Black

The 1964 Civil Rights Act banned discrimination in public accommodations. It was signed into law by President Lyndon B. Johnson on July 2, 1964.

LBJ handing pen to MLK - July 2, 1964

Before 1964, African Americans used travel guides, including The Negro Motorist Green Book, to navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. As this Emmy-nominated virtual reality film shows, African Americans are still traveling while black.

Must–See TV: Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am

Toni Morrison was a writer, book editor, college professor, activist and visionary. Morrison’s much-loved novel, Beloved, won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. In 1993, she became the first black woman of any nationality to be awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature.

toni-morrison-nobel prize-in-literature

Morrison received the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the highest civil honor, from President Barack Obama during a White House ceremony in 2012. President Obama said:

Toni Morrison’s prose brings us that kind of moral and emotional intensity that few writers ever attempt. From Song of Solomon to Beloved, Toni reaches us deeply, using a tone that is lyrical, precise, distinct, and inclusive. She believes that language “arcs toward the place where meaning might lie.” The rest of us are lucky to be following along for the ride.

toni-morrison-presidential medal of freedom

American Masters presents the U.S. broadcast premiere of the documentary Toni Morrison: The Pieces I Am on Tuesday, June 23, 2020 at 8:00pm ET on PBS.

Music and Social Justice

From Washington, DC to Seattle, Washington, the streets are filled with thousands of protesters demanding justice for Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd and all victims of police brutality.

breonnataylor-ahmaudarbery-georgefloyd

Music has long fueled movements for social justice. In 1936, Lead Belly denounced racial segregation.

Civil rights activists vowed they weren’t going to let nobody turn them around.

In 1964, Sam Cooke said “a change is gonna come.”

James Brown implored everybody to get involved.

In 1975, Harold Melvin & the Blue Notes told us to wake up; no more sleeping in bed.

In the wake of the lynching of George Floyd, “the world has changed so very much from what it used to be.” Spotify’s Black Lives Matter playlist has nearly 850,000 likes.

The Roots of Jazz and Blues

Is American jazz black music? Is the Pope Catholic?

A 1959 documentary, Cry of Jazz, sparked controversy when one of the characters asserted that “jazz is merely the Negro’s cry of joy and suffering.” The character, Alex, explained that “the Negro was the only one with the necessary musical and human history to create jazz.”

In 1979, jazz pianist and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture of the history of jazz for the slow learners.

Mary Lou Williams HistoryTree

The roots of the blues were planted in 1619 when Africans were brought to Jamestown, Virginia on a slave ship. Jazz poet Gil Scott-Heron observed:

America provided the atmosphere for the blues and the blues was born
The blues was born on the American wilderness
The blues was born on the beaches where the slave ships docked
Born on the slave man’s auction block

If your ancestors didn’t pick cotton from “cain’t see in the morning till cain’t see at night,” Benny Turner wants you to know who sang the blues first.

Freedom Songs: Soul of the Civil Rights Movement

I love music, any kind of music.

Music sustained the ancestors and was the soul of the Civil Rights Movement. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

In a sense the freedom songs are the soul of the movement. They are more than just incantations of clever phrases designed to invigorate a campaign; they are as old as the history of the Negro in America. They are adaptations of the songs the slaves sang — the sorrow songs, the shouts for joy, the battle hymns and the anthems of our movement. I have heard people talk of their beat and rhythm, but we in the movement are as inspired by their words. ‘Woke up This Morning with My Mind Stayed on Freedom’ is a sentence that needs no music to make its point. We sing the freedom songs today for the same reason the slaves sang them, because we too are in bondage and the songs add hope to our determination that ‘We shall overcome, black and white together, we shall overcome someday.’

To celebrate the 25th anniversary of Martin Luther King Jr. Day, the National Museum of African American Music curated a playlist of songs that ignited social change.

Sounds of Social Justice - Featured

The songs include Sam Cooke’s “A Change is Gonna Come,” Marvin Gaye’s “Inner City Blues (Make Me Wanna Holler),” John Coltrane’s “Alabama” and Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit.” You can listen to “Sounds of Social Justice: MLK 2020” here.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

Later this month, I will give a talk on the Green Book at the Paul Robeson House and Museum in Philadelphia. I first wrote about “The Negro Motorist Green Book” in 2015. That year, the Schomburg Center for Research in Black Culture digitized Victor Hugo’s travel guide which was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBook Collage

The now-iconic publication is experiencing a renaissance. Countless news articles, essays and blog posts have been written. A documentary, Driving While Black, will air on PBS next year. In June 2020, a Green Book exhibition developed by the Smithsonian Institution Traveling Exhibition Service will begin a three-year tour. The first stop is the most famous Green Book site, the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.

Lorraine Motel

Over the course of 30 years, dozens of Philadelphia businesses were listed in the Green Book. The businesses were clustered in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping Green Book Philadelphia - Green Book Icon4

Almost 70 percent of Philadelphia’s buildings were constructed before 1945. So it’s not surprising there are 45 extant Green Book sites. A few are vacant; most have been repurposed. Five are in the same business including the Hotel Carlyle which was first listed in the Green Book in 1948 and is doing business under the same name.

Hotel Carlyle - Vintage Sign

Hotel Carlyle - William Shouldis

Hotel Carlyle - June 7, 2019

To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.