Category Archives: 400 Years of African American History

International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and Transatlantic Slave Trade 2019

In 2007, the United Nations General Assembly designated March 25 as an annual International Day of Remembrance of Victims of Slavery and Transatlantic Slave Trade.

In a video message, UN Secretary-General António Guterres said:

The transatlantic slave trade was one of history’s most appalling manifestations of human barbarity. We must never forget the crimes and impacts, in Africa and beyond, across the centuries.

[…]

We need to tell the stories of those who stood up against their oppressors, and recognize their righteous resistance. On this International Day of Remembrance, we pay homage to the millions of African men, women and children who were denied their humanity and forced to endure such abominable cruelty.

Harriet Tubman stood up against her oppressors. After her escape, she returned to Maryland and led hundreds of men, women and children to freedom in the North. Tubman repurposed lyrics from the slave song “Wade in the Water” to instruct enslaved African Americans on how to avoid detection.

Fittingly, on this International Day of Remembrance, the National Museum of African American History and Culture unveiled the Emily Howland photography album that contains a previously unknown portrait of Tubman. It is believed to be the earliest existing photo of the celebrated Underground Railroad conductor.

Harriet Tubman - NMAAHC Unveiling - March 25, 2019

NMAAHC Founding Director Lonnie G. Bunch III said in a statement:

This photo album allows us to see Harriet Tubman in a riveting, new way; other iconic portraits present her as either stern or frail. This new photograph shows her relaxed and very stylish. Sitting with her arm casually draped across the back of a parlor chair, she’s wearing an elegant bodice and a full skirt with a fitted waist. Her posture and facial expression remind us that historical figures are far more complex than we realize. This adds significantly to what we know about this fierce abolitionist—it helps to humanize such an iconic figure.

We also know the legacy of forced migration and 250 years of free labor is present today. It is present in the wealth gap, school-to-prison pipeline and inequitable school funding. The brutalization of black bodies dates back to the policing of enslaved African Americans by slave patrols.

Slave-Patrol-Article-

The struggle continues.

Remarking African American History in Philadelphia

Earlier this year, I wrote about the unmarking of African American history in Philadelphia. Historical markers associated with black achievement and seminal events are missing, damaged or desecrated. The conversation about the erasure of black presence from public spaces began at a Kwanzaa celebration. Since then, Avenging The Ancestors Coalition (ATAC) formed the Historical Marker Monitoring Committee of which I am chairperson.

The overarching issue is whose story is told and whose story is preserved in public memory. In 1990, Dr. Charles L. Blockson led the fight to get our stories memorialized on historical markers. We now have to fight to preserve them.

We must be vigilant to ensure public memorials are respected. When I saw the South Street Headhouse District (SSHD) had chained a trash can to the W.E.B. DuBois historical marker, community activist Joe Cox and I were prepared to use bolt cutters to remove it. But SSHD removed it before we got there.

W.E.B. DuBois Collage - Faye Anderson

On March 2nd, I noticed UPS had placed a drop box within inches of the London Coffee House marker which notes the place where African Americans’ ancestors were sold on the auction block. After a “trial by Twitter,” UPS saw the error of their ways and moved the drop box a respectable distance from the marker.

London Coffee House Collage - Faye Anderson

The historical marker program is administered by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission (PHMC). The agency is responsible for maintaining a marker once installed. The marker honoring Sister Rosetta Tharpe is being refurbished.

Sister Rosetta Tharpe Collage

PHMC lacks the resources to replace missing markers. So it’s imperative that we identify who removed the public memorial and hold them accountable. The Legendary Blue Horizon historical marker was removed between May 5, 2018 and November 17, 2018. The construction companies working on the north and south side of the historic landmark, Ernest Bock & Sons Inc. and Tester Construction Group LLC respectively, point the finger at each other. We know the marker didn’t walk away. Ray Charles could see equipment was used to remove the pole from the sidewalk.

Blue Horizon Collage2

While the construction companies play the blame game, ATAC is not playing. At the group’s March meeting, it was decided that members will call and write Councilman Darrell Clarke in whose district the Legendary Blue Horizon is located. If he continues to ignore his constituents, we will show up at the April 25th meeting of City Council. Perhaps then Clarke will see the problem of disappearing blackness and hold developers accountable.

#DisappearingBlackness2

Abolition Hall Update

Located 30 minutes from Philadelphia, Abolition Hall was an Underground Railroad station where runaway slaves found shelter in the purpose-built structure and surrounding fields. The historic landmark provided safe passage for enslaved African Americans fleeing the auction block, the brutality of slave life and the torture inflicted on those who dared to resist.

Slave Auction - The Villages at Whitemarsh

Brutality of Slave Life - The Villages at Whitemarsh

Instruments of Torture - The Villages at Whitemarsh

In October 2018, the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors approved K. Hovnanian Homes’ application to build 67 townhouses on the Corson Homestead. The cookie-cutter development would be a stone’s throw from the national landmark. Friends of Abolition Hall and two nearby property owners appealed the decision.

Sydelle Zove, convener of Friends of Abolition Hall, said:

We are pursuing legal action through the Montgomery County Court of Common Pleas, asking that the decision by the Whitemarsh Township Board of Supervisors be overturned. That decision, issued on October 25, 2018, clears the way for K. Hovnanian Homes to construct 67 townhouses on the fields adjoining Abolition Hall and the Hovenden House. This 10.45-acre property — the Corson Homestead — was a busy stop on the Underground Railroad. George Corson and Martha Maulsby Corson risked imprisonment and fines in opening their home to men, women, and children fleeing north to Canada. Legal counsel for the grassroots group is preparing a brief for the court, which is due on March 14.

For the developer, money seemingly grows on trees. By contrast, Friends of Abolition Hall must beat the bushes to continue the fight to save Abolition Hall from degradation. If you believe this place matters, please make a tax-deductible donation at http://preservationpa.org/page.asp?id=65.

Women in Jazz Month 2019

March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate and recognize the contributions of women to jazz. As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate women who used music as a platform for social change.

Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit” is well-known.

Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not as well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.

Ella Fitzgerald broke down racial barriers. On October 7, 1955, the “First Lady of Song” performed with the Jazz at the Philharmonic in Houston. The concert tour was produced by her manager Norman Granz, an ally in the fight for racial justice. The Music Hall had “Negro” and “White” labels on the bathroom doors. Shortly before the show, Granz removed the labels.

Houston’s segregationists were angry about Granz’s attempt to integrate the show by refusing to pre-sell tickets. Some whites asked for a refund rather than sit next to an African American. After the first show, the police stormed Fitzgerald’s dressing room and arrested her, trumpeter Dizzy Gillespie, saxophonist Illinois Jacquet and other musicians on trumped-up charges.

Ella Fitgzerald - Arrested - October 1955

With the intervention of her friend, actress Marilyn Monroe, Fitzgerald was the first African American to perform at the legendary Mocambo nightclub.

Ella Fitzgerald - Marilyn Monroe

Nina Simone’s outrage over the bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church emboldened civil rights activists.

Simone’s celebration of black excellence inspired a new generation of civil rights activists, including the writer.

Remembering Marian Anderson

Given the givens, some folks have called for a “do-over” of Black History Month 2019. I want to close out February on a high note by remembering Marian Anderson.

The name Marian Anderson has been part of my life from Day One. An older-now-deceased sister was named Marian. As a schoolgirl, I was puzzled when I would hear my teachers say her name. Of course I would later learn they were referring to the world-renowned contralto who inspired a generation of civil rights activists, including Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

Marian Anderson - Lincoln Memorial

In a high school essay, 15-year-old Martin wrote:

Black America still wears chains. The finest Negro is at the mercy of the meanest white man. Even winners of our highest honors face the class color bar. Look at a few of the paradoxes that mark daily life in America. Marian Anderson was barred from singing in the Constitution Hall, ironically enough, by the professional daughters of the very men who founded this nation for liberty and equality. But this tale had a different ending. The nation rose in protest, and gave a stunning rebuke to the Daughters of the American Revolution and a tremendous ovation to the artist, Marian Anderson, who sang in Washington on Easter Sunday and fittingly, before the Lincoln Memorial. Ranking cabinet members and a justice of the Supreme Court were seated about her. Seventy-five thousand people stood patiently for hours to hear a great artist at a historic moment. She sang as never before with tears in her eyes. When the words of “America” and “Nobody Knows De Trouble I Seen” rang out over that great gathering, there was a hush on the sea of uplifted faces, black and white, and a new baptism of liberty, equality and fraternity. That was a touching tribute, but Miss Anderson may not as yet spend the night in any good hotel in America. Recently she was again signally honored by being given the Bok reward as the most distinguished resident of Philadelphia. Yet she cannot be served in many of the public restaurants of her home city, even after it has declared her to be its best citizen.

That was then. Ms. Anderson is now an American icon who will be celebrated in her home city with a new exhibition, “Marian: A Soul In Song,” presented by the National Marian Anderson Historical Society.

Marian Anderson Exhibit

The exhibition features a collection of the opera singer’s performance gowns, costumes and accessories, photographs, video and recordings. The exhibition runs from February 27, 2019 to January 1, 2020. For more information and tickets, visit the Marian Anderson Museum & Historical Society.

American History 101

Black History Month is past the halfway mark. With the daily stream of stories about blackface in high places in Virginia, and Gucci and Katy Perry blackface merchandise, some are thankful February is the shortest month.

Katy Perry - Blackface2

Governor Ralph Northam’s assertion that the first Africans to arrive in Virginia were “indentured servants” shows his fundamental ignorance about American history.

It has been 400 years since “twenty and odd” Africans arrived at Jamestown. The Virginia governor, aka Coonman, did not know how African Americans’ ancestors got here so he’s reading up on American history. Fine, but here’s the “CliffsNotes” version courtesy of B.B. King:

When I first got the blues
They brought me over on a ship
Men were standing over me
And a lot more with a whip

Unmarking African American History in Philadelphia

This year marks the 400th anniversary of the arrival of the first enslaved Africans in colonial America. The first Africans arrived in Philadelphia circa 1639. Although the African American story cannot be told without Philadelphia, black history was largely excluded from public spaces. A chance conversation at a Kwanzaa celebration led me to sound the alarm about missing and damaged African American historical markers in Philadelphia.

There is power in remembering the past. Lonnie Bunch, founding director of the National Museum of African American History & Culture, recently wrote:

You can tell a great deal about a country and a people by what they deem important enough to remember, to create moments for — what they put in their museum and what they celebrate. … Yet I would suggest that we learn even more about a country by what it chooses to forget — its mistakes, its disappointments, and its embarrassments. In some ways, African American History month is a clarion call to remember. Yet it is a call that is often unheeded.

In Philadelphia, we have heeded the call to ensure the ancestors are not forgotten. During Black History Month, we are checking on the status of African American historical markers.

Faye Anderson - William Still Historical Marker - Feb. 2, 2019

In an essay published in PlanPhilly, I wrote about the unmarking of African American history:

Philadelphia’s streets are lined with history. The blue and gold signs issued by the Pennsylvania Historical Museum and Commission mark everything from the oldest medical library in the U.S. at Pennsylvania Hospital to 300-year-old Elfreth’s Alley.

But before 1990, there were only two markers associated with African American history installed in Philadelphia: First Protest Against Slavery (1983) and St. Thomas’ African Episcopal Church (1984). To fill the gaping hole in the American story, in 1990 Charles L. Blockson, founder and then-curator of Temple University’s Charles L. Blockson Afro-American Collection, launched the historical marker project. The project was funded by a grant from the William Penn Foundation. In the introduction to Philadelphia Guide: African-American State Historical Markers published in 1992, Bernard C. Watson, Ph.D., then-president and CEO of the foundation, wrote: “The Philadelphia African-American Pennsylvania State Marker Project is a modest first step toward correcting one of the most egregious problems in Philadelphia public history. Philadelphia, the birthplace of our independence, home of the Liberty Bell, the first capital city of these United States, is so rich in historical detail that the absence of signs and signposts to recognize and commemorate the nearly 300-year presence of Africans and then African-Americans, has been especially troublesome. They, too, were and are part of our history.”

Then as now, gentrification was unmarking black history. Dr. Blockson wrote this about the origin of the project: “When the project began, it became apparent that Philadelphia, like other American cities, was losing places of historical significance through gentrification and neglect. It is our hope that through the installation of the African-American historical markers, we can preserve the remaining sites and revive memories of past events and citizens who lived before us and made positive contributions to our nation.”

Jessie Redmon Fauset was among the first wave of markers dedicated in the 1990s. Her marker was installed in front of the North Philadelphia house in which she was living at the time of her death.

jessie redmon fauset historical marker2

The February 18, 2017 issue of the New Yorker included an article by literary commentator Morgan Jerkins, “The Forgotten Work of Jessie Redmon Fauset.” The piece revived interest in Fauset’s literary work. However, the accomplished writer was never forgotten in Philadelphia. On its 150th anniversary in 1998, the Alumnae Association of the Philadelphia High School for Girls elected Fauset to their Distinguished Daughters Court of Honor. She was the first African American graduate of the prestigious public school.

Although former Sixer and NBA legend Charles Barkley played on a different court, he, too, honored Fauset by naming her a “Philadelphia Black History Month All Star” in February 2018. A few months later, Jacqueline Wiggins found an ugly patch on the sidewalk where Fauset’s historical marker used to be.

the-covered-patch-where-a-historic-marker-commemorating-jessie-redmon-fauset-once-stood.752.1337.s

Read More