Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

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.

Martin Luther King Jr. Day

From the cries of the enslaved to George Floyd’s anguished cry for his mother, Black people have sung “sorrow songs” of suffering and oppression.

For African Americans freedom is a constant struggle. From slave songs to freedom songs music is the glue that binds African Americans together in the struggles for emancipation, civil rights and racial justice. In an interview, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said:

A Negro song anthology would include sorrow songs, shouts for joy, battle hymns, anthems. Since slavery, the Negro has sung throughout his struggle in America. “Steal Away” and “Go Down, Moses” were the songs of faith and inspiration which were sung on the plantations. For the same reasons the slaves sang, Negroes today sing freedom songs, for we, too, are in bondage.

On Martin Luther King Jr. Day 2021, TV One will premiere UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT, a two-part documentary of 400 years of “auditory dissent.” The film features interviews with artists, archival footage from memorable speeches, and live vocal performances.

Cathy Hughes, Chairwoman of Urban One Inc., said in a statement:

Music is the heart and soul of Black culture – giving life to our experiences, voice to our stories and growing power out of our pain. Every melody, lyric and rhythm artfully depicts the layers of Black diversity, scope of Black creativity, and depths of the complexity of our people. TV One’s Music & the Movement special pays homage to the music and music makers whose talents created a soundtrack of Black music during moments of political and social unrest throughout our history.

Robyn Greene Arrington, Vice President of Programming and Production, added:

Throughout history, Black music has been a clarion call to amplify the voice of our community and important social and political movements like the Civil Rights and Black Lives Matter movements. After an unprecedented year of social, economic, and political turmoil, we felt MLK Day was a great time to chronicle the ongoing struggles of Black Americans along with those who tirelessly lend their voices to protesting injustice and instigating positive changes for our community and social justice movements.

UNSUNG PRESENTS: MUSIC & THE MOVEMENT will air on TV One on Monday, January 18, 2021, at 8 p.m. ET.

Black History Matters

This year marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of William Still, father of the Underground Railroad. Still’s last place of residence was 244 S. 12th Street.

Still’s neighbors included abolitionist Henry Minton who lived at 204 S. 12th Street. While Still’s residence has been demolished, Minton’s former residence and place of business is still standing, for now.

In the coming weeks, New York City-based Midwood Investment & Development will demolish one of the few extant buildings associated with the Underground Railroad. The road to demolition was paved by the Philadelphia Historical Commission which for an “inexplicable” reason ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation. The sole vote for designating the Henry Minton House was cast by the representative of City Council President Darrell Clarke, the only Black man with a seat at the table.

The Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board wrote:

Critics like Faye M. Anderson, the director of a public history project to document Philadelphia’s golden age of jazz, maintain that the commission and its staff, which are predominantly white, do not advocate enough on behalf of preserving overlooked sites, such as Doctors Row, that are rich with Black history.

Consider the inexplicable 2019 decision to reject a register nomination for a 12th Street building once occupied by the abolitionist Henry Minton, a member of Philadelphia’s 19th-century Black elite. Anderson and other critics contend the commission gave too much weight to arcane technical specifications or architectural alterations — and paid too little attention to the role of the building in community life.

Demolition of the Henry Minton House is not the end of the story. Midwood has a conditional public art bonus that allows the developer to build more cookie-cutter apartments for “the demographic moving to Philly.” The zoning density bonus is site-specific and must be approved by the Philadelphia Art Commission. If the developer erases the history of the specific site, 204 S. 12th Street, the community will fight the issuance of a Certificate of Occupancy. Without a CO, Midwood’s shiny new high-rise will sit empty.

The struggle continues.

UPDATE: The Design Advocacy Group’s letter to the editor in response to the Philadelphia Inquirer Editorial Board op-ed has been published (full disclosure: I serve on DAG’s Steering Committee). The letter reads in part:

While we’re at it, we also can’t wait for a long-term solution to protect the house and restaurant of abolitionist and star caterer Henry Minton at 204 South 12th Street. The developers of the generic 36-story residential tower planned for that site have agreed to pay for a replacement for the mural honoring LBGTQ activist Gloria Casarez that they have already painted over. That’s welcome news. But they should also preserve the distinctive 19th-century façade of the Minton house. That will make their project more attractive—and it’s the right thing. It’s a win-win.

Read more

On the eve of Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday, Midwood Investment & Development began to demolish the Henry Minton House. The developer unwittingly exposed the lie that the alterations to the façade were irreversible. With little effort, the façade could have been restored to its period of significance. But properties associated with Black history must pass a Jim Crow historic integrity test that the Betsy Ross House and other properties designated “historic” could not pass.

This is what systemic racism in historic preservation looks like.

Help Preserve Historic Eden Cemetery

George Bernard Shaw famously said, “Youth is wasted on the young.” In my youth, I took the long way to my high school rather than the short-cut through the nearby cemetery. Fast forward to today, when I pass a burial ground, I often think of Johnny Taylor who sang “people in the cemetery, they’re not all alone.”

Eden Cemetery is a 53-acre historic district listed on the National Register of Historic Places. It is a site on the National Park Service’s Underground Railroad Network to Freedom, and a member of the Pennsylvania Hallowed Grounds Project. A stroll through Eden is “like walking through a book of Black history.” The lives of those interred span from 1721 to the present.

Under the CARES Act, taxpayers who don’t itemize their deductions are allowed to deduct an additional $300 for cash contributions to public charities this year. You can help protect Eden’s legacy and preserve African American memory by making an end-of-year donation here.

Your tax-deductible donation will ensure the graves of Father of the Underground Railroad William Still, Letitia Still, Henry Minton, Octavius V. Catto, Frances Ellen Watkins Harper, Marian Anderson, among others, will be kept clean.

New Billie Holiday Documentary Now Showing

Billie Holiday is an international icon. She also holds a special place in my heart. During a particularly rough patch, I started every day listening to “Good Morning Heartache.”

You can imagine my dismay when I moved to Philadelphia and noticed she didn’t have a plaque on the Walk of Fame. So I did what I do.

Months later, I was all smiles when Lady Day’s plaque was installed on Avenue of the Arts.

I recently watched the powerful new documentary Billie via an exclusive screening by the 92nd Street Y.

Billie breathes life into nearly 50-year-old audiotapes of the interviews journalist Linda Lipnack Kuehl conducted with Holiday’s contemporaries including Count Basie, Carmen McRae, Tony Bennett, singer Sylvia Syms and drummer Jo Jones. Archival materials and first-hand accounts shed light on systemic racism, racial segregation and the undertold story of her commitment to racial justice.

The civil rights pioneer said “Strange Fruit” was her personal protest. She performed the song at the end of every performance for 20 years despite FBI and police harassment. Bassist Charles Mingus said, “She was fighting equality before Martin Luther King. … That might be why the cops were against her too, not just junk.”

The special screening was followed by a Q&A with director James Erskine and executive producer Michele Smith, manager of the Billie Holiday Estate.

Billie is now showing in theaters and on virtual cinema. For updates, go here.

Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation

From the colonial era to the Civil War, Philadelphia was a center of organized resistance to slavery. The city was also home to the largest and wealthiest African American population in the country. Philadelphia’s Black elite included Henry Minton (1811-1883), a caterer and abolitionist whose guests included John Brown, Frederick Douglass, and William Still, the Father of the Underground Railroad. But this history is largely absent from the properties listed on the Philadelphia Register of Historic Places.

Last year the Philadelphia Historical Commission ignored the unanimous recommendation of its Committee on Historic Designation and rejected the nomination of the Henry Minton House for listing on the local register because its façade has been altered. Midwood Investment & Development plans to demolish one of the few extant buildings in Philadelphia associated with the Underground Railroad.

Midwood CEO John Usdan signaled his biased view of history in 2017. In an interview with The Philadelphia Inquirer 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 [emphasis added].

That is what systemic racism in historic preservation sounds like. This is what it looks like. The Historical Commission applied a Jim Crow-like test of historic integrity that the Betsy Ross House and “historic” properties in Society Hill could not pass.

For a deeper dive, check out my essay “Henry Minton House, Systemic Racism and Historic Preservation.”