Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

Public Art Matters: Emancipation and Freedom Monument

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.

As International Underground Railroad Month winds down, I would like to share a video of the unveiling of the Emancipation and Freedom Monument.

International Underground Railroad Month 2021

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan declared September International Underground Railroad Month in 2019. More freedom seekers fled from bondage in Maryland than from any other state. September was chosen because it was the month that Frederick Douglass (September 3, 1838) and Harriet Tubman (September 17, 1849) took their flight to freedom.

In 2020, Pennsylvania was one of eleven states that recognized International Underground Railroad Month. From Adams County to Warren County, Pennsylvania was a hub of organized resistance to slavery.

Hundreds of fleeing bondmen passed through Bucks County where there were numerous Underground Railroad stations, particularly in the boroughs of Quakertown, Buckingham and New Hope. Stationmasters included George Corson, Mahlon Linton, Jonathan Magill, and the Paxson and Pierce families. According to Dr. Charles L. Blockson, a small group of free blacks who settled in New Hope used Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church, founded circa 1818, as a hiding place for the self-emancipated. In his book, The Underground Railroad in Pennsylvania, Blockson notes the “well-concealed settlement was known as ‘Darkeytown.’”

Mount Moriah A.M.E. Church Cemetery is the final resting place for some formerly enslaved, including Henry Lee, and Rachel Moore and two of her children.

Jesse Crooks, an independent researcher and archivist, has done extensive research on Mount Moriah. He shared Edward H. Magill’s remarks before the Bucks County Historical Society on January 18, 1898. Magill, second president of Swarthmore College and son of an Underground Railroad stationmaster, recounted:

Rachel Moore was a slave near Elkton, Maryland, more than fifty years ago. She was manumitted by her master, and received free-papers from the court at Elkton. I had hoped to present these papers, as they were long carefully cherished in her possession, but they have been mislaid since her death. She had six children who were still slaves, and succeeded in bringing all of them North, aided by the Underground Railroad. As usual they traveled only by night, resting in concealment during the day. Think of a mother starting unaided, with her six children, to a distant and unknown country, seeking for her children the blessings of freedom which she herself had already acquired! Does not the fact speak volumes for the cruelty of the system of oppression from which she was making her escape?

They sometimes met with friends who took them in and cared for them during the day, and sent them on at night. Sometimes they were less fortunate, and spent the day of anxious concealment all alone. The first names that I have of those with whom they stopped are a family of Lewises with whom they spent two days at Phoenixville, and who then sent them on, in a wagon at night, to a friend named Paxson, near Norristown, who in turn took them into Norristown to the home of that well-known friend of the slave, Jacob L. Paxson, where they remained two weeks. From there they were forwarded to the home of W. H. Johnson, where homes were found for the four eldest children in the families of Thomas Paxson, Joseph Fell, Edward Williams and John Blackfan. Rachel, with her two younger children, came to the home of my father, Jonathan P. Magill, where they remained for several years. I am indebted to Fanny, one of these children, for the details of this account.

Sadly, Moore’s final resting place has been abandoned. Jesse Crooks and I are collaborating to save Mount Moriah Cemetery from decades of neglect. Burial grounds matter. They are places where the ancestors were honored and accorded the dignity and respect in death that were denied them in life.

Help may be on the way. The “African American Burial Grounds Study Act,” introduced by Sen. Sherrod Brown (D-OH), unanimously passed in the Senate on December 20, 2020. Sen. Brown is expected to reintroduce the bill which would help identify, preserve and restore Black burial grounds. In a letter in support of the Senate bill, a national coalition of organizations representing, i.a., preservationists, historians, archaeologists and conservationists wrote:

Cemeteries are places of tribute and memory, connecting communities with their past. Unfortunately, many African-American burial grounds from both before and after the Civil War are in a state of disarray or inaccessibility. Beginning with slavery and continuing through the Jim Crow era, African-Americans were restricted in where they could bury their dead. Local laws segregated burial grounds by race. These sites were often confined to remote areas or marginal property, and they frequently were not provided the same sort of state or local support or assistance as predominantly white cemeteries. As a result, many jurisdictions are unaware of the existence of these historic sites; even when their location is known, the task of restoring, preserving, and maintaining these burial grounds can be expensive, difficult, and require technical expertise.

For information on how you can help ensure the ancestors’ graves are kept clean, contact Faye Anderson at andersonatlarge@gmail.com.

Christian Street Historic District: Real Evidence of Colorism, Systemic Racism, Displacement and White Privilege

Philadelphia is in the throes of a demolition crisis. In #Demodelphia, nothing is sacred.

Gentrifiers in Graduate Hospital, the city’s most gentrified neighborhood, are concerned that developers are erasing the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. To preserve their streetscape – and property values – they propose that a stretch of Christian Street be designated a historic district. They unilaterally determined the period of significance for Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district is 1910 to 1945. They blithely erased 271 years of Black history. The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639.

Tellingly, in “Philadelphia’s African American Heritage: A Brief Historic Context Statement for the Preservation Alliance’s Inventory of African American Historic Sites (2009),” Dana Dorman wrote:

Meanwhile, the large influx of southern blacks into Philadelphia and other northern urban centers helped spur a new flourishing of African American culture from the 1910s to 1940s. Encouraged to seek inspiration in their own history and experiences, artists like Jessie Redmon Fauset, Marian Anderson, John Coltrane and Paul Robeson helped to promote black self-determination and equality through their art.

Philadelphia is home to Mother Bethel AME Church, William Still House, Robert Purvis House, National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, Marian Anderson House Museum, Paul Robeson House, Black National Historic Landmarks, including the Johnson House, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper House and John Coltrane House, and the Institute for Colored Youth, now known as Cheyney University, the first HBCU. Yet the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia nominated six blocks of Christian Street for designation as Philadelphia’s first Black-themed historic district. The character-defining features of “Black Doctors Row” were classism and colorism, a legacy of slavery.

Julian Francis Abele was an accomplished albeit little-known architect. Marian Stubbs Thomas was the founder of Jack and Jill of America. In Philadelphia: 1639-2000, Dr. Charles L. Blockson wrote:

Like other social clubs such as Jack and Jill, the Links and Girlfriends sponsored affairs during the year, the proceeds from which were to help worthy civil organizations. Nearly everyone who had acquired social prominence wanted to be accepted in these organizations. Until recently, a code of color with high standards was the rule of the day. These so-called “blue veined” organizations on most occasions did not admit dark-skinned persons. If they could not pass the “paper bag test,” that is, if the person’s skin was darker than a brown paper bag, they were not permitted to join. Sometimes dark-skinned people were accepted if they came from a family of wealth or accomplishment.

By the end of the 1920s, Bessie Smith was the highest paid Black performer. She lived on Christian Street but not on Black Doctors Row. The Empress of the Blues could not pass the “paper bag test.”

The Wander Inn was the last place where Bessie Smith performed in Philadelphia before she was killed in a car accident in Mississippi. The Green Book site was owned by Forrest White Woodard, founder of The Philadelphia Independent. Published from 1931 to 1971, at one point it was the Black newspaper with the widest circulation. Woodard was the richest Black man in Philadelphia in the 1930s.

Philadelphia’s Black elite dates back to the eighteenth century. Under Pennsylvania’s gradual abolition law, slavery did not end in the state until 1850. James Forten was one of the wealthiest men in antebellum Philadelphia. Was that “real evidence of progress?”

Dr. Blockson is the leading authority on Black history in Philadelphia and Pennsylvania. His books include Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers, Black Genealogy and African Americans in Pennsylvania: Above Ground and Under Ground. A search for “Black Doctors Row” on Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, Temple University Libraries returned no results. Apparently The Philadelphia Tribune is the sole source for Black Doctors Row. During the period of significance, the newspaper catered to “Old Philadelphians,” e.g., Bustills, Montiers and Bowsers. Kathryn Fambro Woodard was Philadelphia’s first female publisher. She took over The Philadelphia Independent after the death of her husband. In a 1984 interview, Mrs. Woodard said, “The Tribune was more of a sensational paper, and The Independent was more of a community paper.”

To be clear, some Black notables and professionals lived on Christian Street. However, many more lived on Lombard Street, and in West and North Philadelphia. The reference book, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A General Biographical Dictionary of Men and Women of African Descent,” was first published in 1915. The First Edition listed 17 Philadelphians, including Christopher J. Perry, founder of The Philadelphia Tribune who lived at 1319 S. 51st Street. Two lived on Lombard Street; none lived on Christian Street.

The Sixth Edition, “Who’s Who in Colored America: A Biographical Dictionary of Notable Living Persons of African Descent in America, 1941-1945,” included 11 Philadelphians, two of whom lived on Christian Street – John Cornelius Asbury and Agnes Berry Montier, MD.

Asbury was a state legislator and lawyer whose office was located at 1504 South Street. He was married to Ida Elizabeth Bowser Asbury, the first African American woman to graduate from the University of Pennsylvania. Dr. Montier was the first Black woman to earn a medical degree from Temple University.

Realtor, civil rights leader and philanthropist Addie W. Dickerson was listed in the Sixth Edition of “Who’s Who in Colored America.” Dickerson lived in West Philly. Her office was located at 16th and Bainbridge streets.

Bainbridge Street is two blocks south of South Street which during the period of significance was the center of Black Philadelphia. The commercial hub and entertainment district has been the subject of song and story.

While the “light, bright, and damn near white” crowd was putting on the Ritz on Christian Street, Bessie Smith, Ethel Waters, Louis Armstrong and Duke Ellington were putting on a show on South Street.

Yorktown Under Siege

General George Washington’s decisive victory over British forces in the Battle of Yorktown, aka Siege of Yorktown, was the turning point in the American Revolution. Yorktown, a North Philly neighborhood whose name is derived from the 1781 battle, is under siege.

The planned community was built between 1960 and 1969. Banker and developer Norman Denny acquired 153 acres of blighted blocks that were cleared by the Philadelphia Redevelopment Authority. Denny constructed 635 rowhouses that were marketed to first-time African American homebuyers with children. Yorktown provided suburban-style housing for Black families who did not have access to suburban tract houses due to discriminatory lending practices and residential segregation.

In an interview with Scribe Video Center’s Precious Places Community History Project, Bright Hope Baptist Church pastor and former congressman William H. Gray III said:

The church under the leadership of my father who was then the minister, Dr. William H. Gray Jr., got involved with the urban renewal project and joined forces with a man named Mr. Denny of the Lincoln [National] Bank … who had a radical idea. And the radical idea was that instead of building tenements, instead of building tall public housing, what he wanted to do was to build middle-income housing for homeownership. Everybody said you got to be crazy. This is one of the worst slum areas, inner-city, ghetto areas. African Americans don’t have money to buy houses.

Homebuyers included lawyer and civil rights activist Charles W. Bowser who is pictured raising the Yorktown flag. City Council proclaimed October 9, 2018 Charles W. Bowser Day “in recognition of his lifelong dedication to public service and his significant contributions to the African American community in Philadelphia.”

Grammy Award-winning singer Billy Paul lived on Kings Place.

Gospel pioneer and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Sister Rosetta Tharpe lived on Master Street.

Edmund N. Bacon, then-executive director of the City Planning Commission, planned Yorktown. Landscape elements that Bacon introduced in Society Hill are featured in Yorktown. In a progress report to Mayor James H.J. Tate, Bacon wrote:

Denny has finally put landscaping and play equipment in three of the central squares. These are really remarkable and exciting. I have the feeling that this is a unique project and that nothing of its kind has ever been built. I think it is an achievement worthy of some attention.

The project is indeed worthy of attention. The Yorktown Historic District was added to the National Register of Historic Places in 2012. It is one of urbanist Bacon’s crowning achievements.

For two decades, Yorktown has attracted unwanted attention. The neighborhood is located immediately south of Temple University. In 2004, the Yorktown Community Organization, founded by Charles Bowser, sued 30 homeowners for illegal conversion of single-family homes into boarding/rooming houses for students. City Council subsequently amended the zoning code to create the North Central Philadelphia Overlay District to, i.a., “preserve and protect the area from the conversion of houses into multi-family buildings that have the potential to destabilize the area; and foster the preservation and development of this section of the City in accordance with its special character.”

Fast forward to today, proposed development projects have the potential to destabilize Yorktown with out-of-scale apartment buildings marketed to students and other transients. The neighborhood is low-rise, low-density by design.

In June, City Council passed legislation to amend the zoning code and create the Girard Avenue Overlay District which would establish height controls. Joe Grace, spokesperson for Council President Darrell Clarke, told PlanPhilly, “The Council President wants to control density along the corridor to protect historic neighborhoods like Yorktown and West Poplar that are adjacent to Girard Avenue. Too much density along the corridors impacts quality of life for the adjacent neighborhoods that are full of single-family homes and long-term residents.”

Black homeowners are fighting to preserve the setting and feeling of the Yorktown Historic District. To paraphrase Revolutionary War Commander John Paul Jones, they have just begun to fight.

Gentrifiers and Black History in Philadelphia Update

Philadelphia is the best place to discuss race relations because there is more race prejudice here than in any other city in the United States.
 — W. E. B. Du Bois, 1927

City Council passed a one-year demolition moratorium for six blocks of Christian Street in the most gentrified neighborhood in Philadelphia. The mayor is expected to sign the bill which is sponsored by Councilmember Kenyatta Johnson who is under federal indictment.

The purpose of the moratorium is to give the Preservation Alliance for Greater Philadelphia time to prepare the nomination for the proposed Christian Street Historic District. Architect Julian Abele and Rev. Charles Tindley are the most notable residents of that stretch of Christian Street. Abele and Tindley lived on the 1500 block but gentrifiers are pushing to designate six blocks. As I told a reporter with PlanPhilly, the proposed historic district trivializes Black history in an effort to preserve the historic fabric of blocks from which African Americans have been displaced:

However, Faye Anderson, a local historic preservationist who has focused on saving vulnerable Black historical sites, said she opposed the effort.

She said the district was an “excuse” to preserve some statelier buildings in a gentrified neighborhood that has become majority-white in recent decades. Anderson said a blanket designation for a thematic district based on the presence of some wealthier African American residents for a period of time in an otherwise segregated neighborhood was “trivializing” to the city’s wider Black history.

Historic preservation is about storytelling. The period of significance of proposed Christian Street Historic District, aka Doctor’s Row, spans the Great Migration, the Great Depression, President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s New Deal and World War II. Doctor’s Row would memorialize a minuscule number of Black professionals who moved on up from racially segregated blocks in the 7th Ward to racially segregated blocks with nicer rowhouses in the 30th Ward.

While the elites of Doctor’s Row were serving tea, NAACP Executive Secretary Carolyn Davenport Moore was serving justice. Prior to 1944, Philadelphia Transportation Company (PTC) consigned Black workers to jobs as porters, messengers or tracklayers. The positions of motorman and trolley operator were for white workers only. Moore organized protest marches. The NAACP filed complaints with the Fair Employment Practices Committee on the grounds PTC’s hiring practices violated Executive Order 8802 which banned discrimination in the defense industry.

The NAACP prevailed in the first civil rights battle of the modern era. Legendary drummer Philly Joe Jones was a drum major for justice. He was in the first group of eight African American trolley operators.

Philly Joe later moved to New York City where he likely spent time on Striver’s Row. The two blocks of rowhouses were home to, among others, jazz luminaries. Striver’s Row was designated the St. Nicholas Historic District in 1967 and added to the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. Striver’s Row represents a Who’s Who of Black America. By contrast, Doctor’s Row has Black folks asking: Who dis?

For updates, follow me on Twitter @andersonatlarge.

Jazz is Black Music

This is your annual reminder that jazz is Black music. The demographics of those who get gigs, grants, fellowships, teaching opportunities, etc., are radically different from those who created jazz. But don’t get it twisted. They are enjoying the fruit of a tree which they didn’t plant. Jazz pianist, arranger and composer Mary Lou Williams drew a picture for the slow learners.

A race man, Duke Ellington said, “Dissonance is our way of life in America. We are something apart, yet an integral part. … I am trying to play the natural feelings of a people.”

A 1959 film, The 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.”

The film was added to the National Film Registry of the Library of Congress in 2010. The films selected are considered “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant, to be preserved for all time. These films are not selected as the ‘best’ American films of all time, but rather as works of enduring significance to American culture.”

Jazz is Black music, point, blank, period.

Gentrifiers and Black History in Philadelphia

The first enslaved Africans were brought to Philadelphia in 1639. Philadelphia was the center of organized resistance to slavery. A visit to the National Museum of African American History and Culture shows that the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

In a city with Black National Historic Landmarks and National Underground Railroad Network to Freedom sites, gentrifiers in the most gentrified neighborhood have proposed that six blocks – 1400 to 2000 Christian Street – be designated Philadelphia’s first “Black-themed” historic district. The notables who lived on this stretch of Christian Street are largely unknown but they lived in elegant townhouses. The 1300 block of Christian Street is not included in the proposed historic district because it is lined with basic rowhouses. The Bessie Smith House is located at 1319 Christian Street.

Philadelphia has a demolition crisis. Gentrifiers are exploiting Black history to preserve the historic fabric of the blocks from which African Americans have been displaced. If it is about Black history and culture, how do you exclude the Empress of the Blues? Download my statement on the proposed “Black-themed” historic district here.

Tulsa Race Massacre@100

Memorial Day marks the 100th anniversary of the 1921 Tulsa Race Massacre. When I first wrote about Greenwood in 2008, Black Wall Street was a footnote in history. In 2021, everyone from ABC News to the Wall Street Journal is going back to Tulsa.

There are new documentaries (here, here and here) and a hip-hop tribute.

On June 2, the National Museum of African American History and Culture and Smithsonian magazine will hold a virtual panel discussion, “Historically Speaking: In Remembrance of Greenwood,” focusing on the development of Black Wall Street, the events leading up to the one of the worst episodes of racial violence in U.S. history, and the Black community’s resilience. The event is free but registration is required. To register, go here.

Black History Matters

I recently checked out SEPTA’s “Portal to Discovery” art installation on view at the subway station closest to Independence Hall. When it is safe to go maskless outdoors, I will lead walking tours to commemorate the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. The starting point is right above SEPTA’s 5th Street/Independence Hall station so I was eager to see whether any of the historic figures that I talk about are depicted. I was happy to see many are, including Still, Jane Johnson, Frances E.W. Harper and Frederick Douglass.

My happiness turned to dismay when I noticed Douglass’ first name is spelled “Fredrick.”

Why didn’t anyone notice the misspelling before the mural was installed? As it turns out, Tom Judd learned about the misspelling in February. Judd then concocted a story that the misspelling was intentional so that he would not have to admit his mistake. In the midst of the national reckoning on race, a white artist effectively said eff it. The Philadelphia Inquirer reports:

Judd said he was upset about it. But he decided to let it go at that point because the error could be explained as “fitting into” a narrative that the chalkboard display had been written by a school student.

He voiced regrets for that decision. “I can see how it landed, like [it was] white people’s entitlement thinking that it [the misspelling] doesn’t matter,” Judd said.

For his “narrative” to make sense, the student’s teacher would not have caught the spelling error. To save face, Judd was willing to cast aspersions on Philadelphia’s teachers. This is white privilege in action. The real narrative is a story of indifference to Black history and the lack of diversity at the Philadelphia Art Commission which approved the design.

The misspelling has been corrected but “Frederick” sticks out like a sore thumb.

I recognize that 99.9% of those who view the mural will not notice the patch. But for me, it will remain a sore point. From the New York Times to student newspapers, misspelled names are routinely corrected. Yet a white artist, who was paid $200,000 in taxpayers’ money, apparently thought it was no big deal that he misspelled the name of a Black icon and seminal figure in American history.

The struggle continues.

The Black Church in America

I am not a church-goer but I fight to save historic churches from demolition (here and here). Regardless of the denomination, the Black Church served as “the foundation for [our] freedom struggle.” Built with the blood, sweat and tears of the ancestors, these buildings hold stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

Most Sunday mornings, I listen to spirituals and old school gospel music.

In his remarks at the 22nd Annual Nancy Hanks Lecture on Arts & Public Policy, Managing and Artistic Director of Jazz at Lincoln Center Wynton Marsalis said:

Those spirituals were the first body of identifiable purely American music art. … Slaves reaching across time to connect the Old Testament and the New, and Moses and freedom, and Jesus and freedom and made it all be right now. They couldn’t even read. But they knew. And I’m telling you these songs brought people together because singing gives a community purpose. And they put everything in those songs. And that music made us believe and it called us home.

On Tuesdays, February 16-23, 9:00 p.m. ET, I will be called home to the church as PBS premieres the two-part series, The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song, which retraces 400 years of the Black Church in America.

The Black Church: This Is Our Story, This Is Our Song will be available on PBS, PBS.org and PBS Video App. Check your local listing here.