Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

Wade in the Water

In 1994, National Public Radio, in partnership with the Smithsonian Institution, produced a 26-part series, Wade in the Water. As Black Music Month winds down, the radio documentary is a refresher course on the history of gospel music and its impact on soul, jazz, and R&B.

Wade in the Water - NPR

From the NPR Music blog:

In 1994, when Wade in the Water first aired on NPR member stations, the world was different. Many of the voices featured in the series were alive, and were generous with their support. Today, some of those voices have been stilled. But this series, documenting African American sacred music traditions spanning more than 200 years, remains vital because of them.

Wade was an experiment in recording music and musical events, amassing scholarship and conducting interviews in order to make all of those elements accessible to a wider audience. As a first-time partnership between NPR and the Smithsonian Institution, it featured a wide range of styles and subcultures and documented the cultural impact of music on real lives and diverse communities.

Over a five-year production period, Wadewas guided by the steady hand, artistic integrity and groundbreaking scholarship of Dr. Bernice Johnson Reagon — historian, musician, MacArthur “genius” and the series’ creator and narrator. And Wade’s production team members brought our personal and professional best to the series, trekking throughout the country to gather relevant material.

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Jump for Joy: Duke Ellington and Social Change

Legendary composer, bandleader and pianist Duke Ellington was not an outspoken activist. His activism was expressed in benefit concerts, non-segregation clause in his contract and his music. In the 1960s, Ellington was asked when he was going to compose a civil rights piece. His reply, “I did my piece more than 20 years ago when I wrote Jump for Joy.”

Duke Ellington-Jump-For-Joy

Debuted on July 10, 1941, at the Mayan Theater in Los Angeles, the musical addressed African American identity and representation. For Ellington, showcasing black excellence was an act of resistance to racial caricatures. Although Jump for Joy received rave reviews, it ran for only 122 performances. The musical never made it to Broadway. The “Great White Way” was not ready for Ellington’s unapologetic blackness.

Nearly 80 years later, audiences still jump for joy when they hear songs from the musical, including “I’ve Got It Bad (and That Ain’t Good) and “Rocks in My Bed.”

Black Music Month 2019

This year marks the 40th anniversary of Black Music Month, the brainchild of music mogul and Rock and Roll Hall of Fame inductee Kenny Gamble and broadcast executive Ed Wright. Radio personality Dyana Williams, the “Mother of Black Music Month,” breaks down the origin of the celebration.

2019 also marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in British North America. Music helped the ancestors survive the dehumanization and barbarity of slavery. This mandolin was crafted by a slave circa 1800s. It is on display at the National Constitution Center.

Mandolin4

The ancestors used music to express their grief and sorrow. In 25 Black Gospel Songs that Have their Roots in Slavery, BlackExcellence.com wrote:

This traditional Negro spiritual dates back to the slavery era. Sometimes I Feel Like a Motherless Child expresses despair and pain. Furthermore, it conveys the lack of hope of a child who’s been torn from the parents. The word sometimes is repeated several times, which can be interpreted as a measure of hope, as it suggests that occasionally this child doesn’t feel motherless. This child can represent a slave who, in the trafficking process, has been separated from something dear to his or her heart (such as a spouse, home country, parents, children, siblings, and so on) and is yearning for it.

Music was a form of resistance. Again, from BlackExcellence.com:

Wade in the Water is a Negro spiritual song that teaches slaves to hide and make it through by getting into the water. It’s a perfect map song example with lyrics that offer precious coded directions.

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Reconstructing the Narrative

Last week I attended a preview of a new exhibit, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality .

Civil War & Reconstruction - The Battle for Freedom and Equality - NCC

Jeffrey Rosen, President and CEO of the National Constitution Center, said in a statement:

The National Constitution Center is thrilled to open the first permanent gallery in America that will tell the story of how the freedom and equality promised in the Declaration of Independence was thwarted in the original Constitution, resurrected by Lincoln at Gettysburg, and, after the bloodiest war in American history, finally enshrined in the 13th, 14th, and 15th Amendments to the Constitution.

Harvard University Professor and Director of the Hutchins Center for African & African American Research Henry Louis Gates Jr. said it is the “most amazing” Reconstruction exhibit he has ever seen. Gates hosted the PBS documentary, Reconstruction: America after the Civil War. In conversation with Rosen, Gates observed:

Reconstruction produced a violent, racist backlash. We are still trying to come to terms with the ending of slavery and derailing of Reconstruction.

The exhibit includes certified copies of the three Reconstruction Amendments. I was filled with amazement as I viewed the resolution to amend the Constitution that Secretary of State William H. Seward submitted to the states on February 1, 1865. The 13th Amendment was ratified on December 6, 1865.

William Seward - 13th Amendment - Feb. 1, 1865 - FMA

The wall of abolitionists ignited my imagination of what it might have looked like when they gathered at Abolition Hall, an anti-slavery meeting place. The Underground Railroad site played host to Frederick Douglass, William Lloyd Garrison and Harriet Beecher Stowe.

Wall of Abolitionists2

John Brown never visited Abolition Hall but his spirit looms large. After the Civil War, the purpose-built structure was converted into an artist’s studio where Thomas Hovenden painted The Last Moments of John Brown. The iconic painting was donated to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1897.

The Last Moments of John Brown - Thomas Hovenden - Villages at Whitemarsh

Abolition Hall is listed in the National Register of Historic Places. But it is at risk of degradation by K. Hovnanian’s cookie-cutter development, the Villages at Whitemarsh. A ruling on the appeal of the Whitemarsh Board of Supervisors’ zoning decision is still pending. For information on how you can help protect this historic landmark, please visit Friends of Abolition Hall.

Preservation Month 2019: Gentrification and Displacement

May is Preservation Month, a time to celebrate historic places that matter to you. What matters to me is the loss of historic places that hold the ancestors’ stories of faith, resistance and triumph.

#DisappearingBlackness - Where's Our Story

A recent report by the National Community Reinvestment Coalition found that Philadelphia has the fourth highest rate of gentrification. The 34-page report is encapsulated in a statement by Midwood Development & Investment CEO John Usdan who lays bare that gentrification and cultural displacement go hand-in-hand:

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.

The demographic moving to Philly does not look like the demographic that is being displaced. At the same time Usdan gushes over Philadelphia’s rich history, he plans to demolish the Henry Minton House. For Usdan, black history apparently is not American history.

As I commented before the Philadelphia Historical Commission when the property was nominated for listing on the local register, this places matters:

Henry Minton belonged to an elite guild of caterers and was a leader in the free black community. In The Philadelphia Negro, W.E.B. DuBois wrote that Minton “wielded great personal influence, aided the Abolition cause to no little degree, and made Philadelphia noted for its cultivated and well-to-do Negro citizens.”

There is not much more to add other than Minton provided freedom fighter John Brown “with bed and board” shortly before his raid upon Harper’s Ferry. It should also be noted that Minton is listed on the iconic Civil War poster, “Men of Color, To Arms!” Clearly, the nomination satisfies Criteria A and J for Designation.

The provenance of the front façade is a distraction. The property is not being nominated because of its architectural significance. So the National Register roadmap for evaluating integrity is irrelevant. Viewed through the African American lens, it’s not about bricks and mortar. It’s about recognizing that our stories matter. African American history matters.

Commission members acknowledged the property does indeed meet the criteria for designation. Still, they reversed the unanimous decision of the Committee on Historic Designation and voted to toss the building on the trash heap of history.

Henry Minton Residence - Committee on Designation Vote

#PhilaHistorical Commission Vote to Decline Designation - April 12, 2019

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans to British North America. While African American history is more than slavery, our story begins with the arrival of “20 and odd Negroes” in Virginia. So whether one focuses on 1639 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in Philadelphia or 1939 when Billie Holiday first recorded “Strange Fruit,” the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia.

So where’s our story? I will talk about disappearing blackness on WHYY Radio Times on Thursday, May 9, 2019, 10:00 – 11:00 am. The station can be heard in Philadelphia and New Jersey. You can join the conversation on Twitter (@whyyradiotimes) or call 888-477-9499.

Ironically, WHYY is in the footprint of Pennsylvania Hall, a purpose-built meeting place for abolitionists that was burned to the ground by a pro-slavery mob three days after it opened. Philadelphia’s mayor, firefighters and police stood by and did nothing.

Pennsylvania Hall Marker

Pennsylvania Hall - WHYY

Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.