Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?

In an Independence Day speech to the Rochester Ladies’ Anti-Slavery Society on July 5, 1852, Frederick Douglass asked, “What to the slave is the Fourth of July?”


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.

Read my full op-ed in The Philadelphia Inquirer.

Black Music Appreciation Month 2022

President Jimmy Carter designated June as Black Music Appreciation Month in 1979.

In a proclamation, President Joe Biden said:

 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.”

To explore the history of Black American music, check out the Black Music Project.

The Untold History of Memorial Day

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.

Jazz Appreciation Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. America’s classical music is appreciated around the world but in New Orleans, the city where jazz was born, there was a 100-year-old ban on jazz in the public schools. While the ban was honored in the breach, it was only officially lifted last month. The prohibition was white supremacists’ tacit acknowledgement that jazz is Black music.

In an interview with the Associated Press, four-time Grammy winner Robert Glasper said that African Americans are reclaiming jazz:

Absolutely, because it’s African-American music… our ancestors are the ones who birthed this music. Blood, sweat and tears. And we, as a people, have gotten away from it and other people have taken it and been able to capitalize off of it.

We’re just living our truth, and that’s what it is. And we are jazz (musicians) — because some people say, “What they’re doing is not jazz.” Yes, it is — it literally is. It’s just jazz with a heartbeat. It’s still alive. What you like is dead. What we’re doing is alive. And that’s the difference.

To borrow a phrase from Grammy-winning producer Swizz Beatz: Long live jazz!

Women’s History Month: Bessie Smith

Bessie Smith famously told us: “Ain’t nobody’s business if I do.”

I have made it my business to oppose the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia’s proposed Christian Street Historic District which would memorialize a small “light, bright, and damn near white” Negro elite. Cataclysmic events during the period of significance (1910 to 1945) include the Great Depression, the Great Migration, two World Wars, and the New Deal.

The Empress of the Blues lived on Christian Street. Her house is located less than 500 feet outside the arbitrary boundaries of the proposed historic district. The fact that one of the highest paid Black entertainers in the 1920s and ‘30s is excluded from the gentrifiers’ narrative about “Black wealth” tells you all you need to know about the merits of the nomination.

Bessie Smith shaped a fashion aesthetic for blues singers. Drexel University professor Alphonso McClendon, author of Fashion and Jazz: Dress, Identity and Subcultural Improvisation, wrote:

Contrary to the sad lyrics they espoused, the blues ladies dressed in extravagant designs that articulated their growing wealth, as well as the changing attitudes of women. … In a publicity photo for Columbia Records [1914], Bessie Smith, Empress of the Blues, captured the Oriental aesthetic, elegantly draped in a sleeveless net tunic embroidered with beads and floral appliqués that scalloped at the hem. Smith was known for her opulent headdresses that exploited beads, fringe and feathers, conceivably a strategy to emphasize the head as practiced by early African societies.

For info about the “Oriental aesthetic” and the Jazz Age, check out “Venus and Diana: Fashioning the Jazz Age” exhibition presented by the Fox Historic Costume Collection at Westphal College of Media Arts and Design.

Rivers of Rhythm 

For more than 400 years, music has powered African American resilience, resistance and joy. From the rhythmic beat of the African drum that was banned by enslavers to “Rhythm Nation,” music is how we got over.

To kick off Black History Month, the National Museum of African American Music presents Rivers of Rhythm. Made possible by Renasant Bank, the six-part docuseries traces the history of African American music from its roots in Africa to The Roots and hip-hop.

Rivers of Rhythm premiered on February 1.

New episodes of Rivers of Rhythm will be released weekly on Tuesday on American Songwriter’s YouTube channel.

Why Christian Street?

Historian and founder of the Association for the Study of African American Life and History, Dr. Carter G. Woodson, launched Negro History Week the second week of February 1926. Black history became a month-long celebration in 1976. Several Philadelphians are included on Woodson’s iconic broadside, Important Events and Dates in Negro History, including Richard Allen, Anthony Benezet, Elizabeth Taylor Greenfield, and Robert Purvis.

The Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia erased 371 years of Black history and nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. I voiced opposition to the proposed Christian Street Historic District from the jump (here, here and here). February is the shortest month so I’ll keep it short: Why Christian Street? The most accomplished albeit largely unknown former resident of the proposed historic district, architect Julian F. Abele, did not identify as Negro. His biographer, Dreck Spurlock Wilson, told Smithsonian magazine, “For all intents and purposes, Julian did not consider himself black. He was almost a-racial. He buried himself in being an artist.”

In Julian Abele, Architect and the Beaux Arts, Wilson notes that Abele was not adverse to following in his brother Joseph’s footsteps but he was not light enough to pass for white. He wrote:

Abele’s racial denial approached delusion. He was both a cocoon with interstitial space for only himself and a shell to ward off unwelcome intrusions. It insulated his talent giving him precious time to mature and repelled the exigency of racism from subverting his ambition. He chose an existence that was neither black nor white. It was beige.

In view of his lifelong rejection of his racial identity, Abele would roll over in his grave at the notion that he would anchor a “Black-themed” historic district.

Abele’s great uncle, Absalom Jones, cofounded the Free African Society with Richard Allen who founded Mother Bethel African Methodist Episcopal Church. The historical markers memorializing this history are located at 6th and Lombard streets. Fact is, from the Delaware River to the Schuylkill River there are extant buildings on Lombard Street where Black history happened.

Listed on the National Register of Historic Places, Mother Bethel is central to African American history and culture. Henry O. Tanner, who is included on Woodson’s broadside, created a bas-relief of Bishop Richard Allen, Sarah Allen and the blacksmith shop where the first AME church was built.

I am once again asking: Why Christian Street?

Happy Birthday, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Martin Luther King Jr. “was born on the fifteenth of January” in 1929 in Atlanta, Georgia. Dr. King’s fearless leadership powered the Civil Rights Movement and inspired artists who have kept his legacy in public memory, including Nina Simone, Max Roach, Otis Spann, Art Blakey, Herbie Hancock, Christian McBride, Grant Green and Stevie Wonder.

To celebrate Dr. King’s heavenly birthday, the National Museum of African American History and Culture has on display an original draft of the iconic “I Have a Dream” speech delivered at the 1963 March on Washington for Jobs and Freedom.

The speech will be on view in the Defending Freedom, Defining Freedom exhibition through February 27, 2022. To learn more, go here.

Gospel Roots of Rock and Roll

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.