Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

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 Travel Guide” 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. Most were located in South Philadelphia, then the heart of the African American community.

Mapping the Green Book in Philadelphia

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 Collage

The Paul Robeson House talk is sold out. To arrange a presentation for your organization, university, school, etc., contact the #GreenBookPHL Project at greenbookphl@gmail.com.

Jubilee Singers

Fisk University was founded in January 1866 to educate newly freed blacks. Between 1871 and 1880, the Fisk Jubilee Singers staged a series of fundraising concerts that introduced slave songs to the world.

Original Jubilee Singers

From Fisk University History:

The tradition of excellence at Fisk has developed out of a history marked by struggle and uncertainty. Fisk’s world-famous Jubilee Singers originated as a group of traveling students who set out from Nashville on October 6, 1871, taking the entire contents of the University treasury with them for travel expenses, praying that through their music they could somehow raise enough money to keep open the doors of their debt-ridden school.

The singers struggled at first, but before long, their performances so electrified audiences that they traveled throughout the United States and Europe, moving to tears audiences that included William Lloyd Garrison, Wendell Phillips, Ulysses S. Grant, William Gladstone, Mark Twain, Johann Strauss, and Queen Victoria.

On November 19, 2019, American Experience PBS will air “Jubilee Singers: Sacrifice and Glory.”

Pennsylvania National Action Network Calls on Sen. Warren to Support Removal of Frank Rizzo Monument

When I moved to Philadelphia, Frank Rizzo, a former mayor and police commissioner, had been dead for nearly two decades. Still, Philadelphians spoke about him with a passion and anger that was visceral. Rizzo’s legacy includes the untreated trauma that he inflicted on the African American community.

As I researched Philadelphia’s jazz history, I heard stories about how Rizzo harassed jazz musicians and club owners. So it is shocking that a monument of a man who was sued by the U.S. Department of Justice for a pattern of police brutality that “shocks the conscience” is at the gateway to municipal services.

#FrankRizzo - Yarnbomb - 2012

I looked at the story behind the story and learned the Rizzo monument was financed by his family. The public was never asked whether the vanity project was an appropriate monument for the City of Philadelphia. Not only was the public not asked, the vanity project was unveiled on January 1, 1999 after the Mummers Parade, an event that for decades featured marchers in blackface.

#FrankRizzo - NYT - Mummers Parade

On the day Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney announced his endorsement of Sen. Elizabeth Warren for the Democratic presidential nomination, it was reported Kenney has no plan to remove the Rizzo monument from Thomas Paine Plaza. Warren supports removal of Confederate monuments and the Confederate battle emblem from the Mississippi state flag.

I join Pennsylvania State Chapter National Action Network in calling on Warren to support removal of the monument of Frank Rizzo, a racist cop who trampled on civil rights, urged supporters to “vote white” and traumatized the African American community. You can read the press release here.

#PublicMemory Playback

On October 22, PlanPhilly held a panel discussion on historic preservation, public memory, cultural heritage and displacement. PlanPhilly Managing Editor Ariella Cohen moderated the discussion. The panelists were:

PlanPhilly Panel Discussion - October 22, 2019

The conversation was lively and at times confrontational. You can listen to the audio here.

Public Memory and Place Matter

In a recent essay published by the Brookings Institution, the writers asked: Whose history gets recognized in our public spaces?

Ultimately, the fight over Barry Farm is about more than those last 32 buildings left standing. It signifies a larger struggle over representation in our physical spaces, one that has only intensified as cities become more divided, unaffordable, and unequal. This struggle has manifested itself in a myriad of ways, from efforts to remove racist memorials from public plazas to movements to protect Black culture on rapidly gentrifying blocks. Within all these actions is one critical, underlying message: Black history matters.

In Philadelphia, our story is being erased from public memory. From the demolition of the church where Marian Anderson first learned to sing to the Henry Minton House, one of the last places John Brown laid his head, developers don’t give a fig about black history.

Henry Minton House - Inquirer

Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. In a news article, 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.”

For this developer, black history is not American history. And black folks are not included in Usdan’s vision for a changing city since he is building for “the demographic moving to Philly.”

First they displace us. Then they erase us.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

The National Museum for African American History and Culture’s exhibition “Power of Place” underscores that place matters:

People make places even as places change people. Places are secured by individual and collective struggle and spirit. Place is about movement and migration and dis-placement. Place is where culture is made, where traditions and histories are kept and lost, and where identities are created, tested, and reshaped over time.

On October 22, PlanPhilly is holding a panel discussion, “Place, Preservation and Public Memory in Philadelphia.” All That Philly Jazz Director Faye Anderson is a panelist, along with Paul Farber, Ori Feibush and Karen Olivier. The event is free but you must register. To reserve your spot, go here.

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Ken Burns’ latest film, “Country Music,” makes clear that African American music is at the root of the genre. Long before Lil Nas X, there was DeFord Bailey, Rufus “Tee Top” Payne, Charley Pride – and Ray Charles. Brother Ray’s 1962 album, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, topped the charts in the U.S. and Britain. The album and its lead single, “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” were certified gold by the Recording Industry Association of America.

Country Music Hall of Famer Willie Nelson observed:

When Ray did “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” that was probably the time when country music was heard by more people than ever before. He kicked country music forward 50 years. Before him, a lot of people had probably never heard of songs by Don Gibson or Hank Williams.

In his autobiography, Brother Ray: Ray Charles’ Own Story, the country music pioneer wrote:

I just wanted to try my hand at hillbilly music. After all, the Grand Ole Opry had been performing inside my head since I was a kid in the country.

The Grand Ole Opry “celebrates the songs of Ray Charles and the influence the revolutionary artist had on country music” in a television special, “An Opry Salute to Ray Charles.”

An Opry Salute to Ray Charles

Hosted by Opry member Darius Rucker, the star-studded salute features Boyz II Men, Cam, Brett Eldredge, Leela James, Jessie Key, Ronnie Milsap, Lukas Nelson, LeAnn Rimes, Allen Stone, Travis Tritt, Charlie Wilson, Trisha Yearwood and Chris Young. The program will air on PBS stations nationwide so check your local listings.

On Vacation

In September, I will lead a walking tour of Green Book sites in Philadelphia. The stops include the Douglass Hotel which offered transportation to Atlantic City, or more accurately, to Chicken Bone Beach.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

After complaints from white bathers, African Americans were restricted to a stretch of the Atlantic City beach near Convention Hall. The segregated area became known as Chicken Bone Beach.

Chicken Bone Beach Plaque2

This two-part audio doc provides an overview of Chicken Bone Beach and the entertainment district that became a magnet for black vacationers, day-trippers and luminaries such as Martin Luther King Jr., Louis Armstrong, Nina Simone, Duke Ellington, Count Basie and Sammy Davis Jr.

For more info, visit Chicken Bone Beach.