Category Archives: Advocacy

Philadelphia Jazz Heritage Walking Tour: Green Book Edition

What’s old is new again. The Negro Motorist Green Book published by Victor H. Green, a postal worker in Harlem, is all the rage. Access to the Green Book in the New York Public Library Digital Collections and the regrettable “Green Book” movie sparked interest in the crowdsourced travel guide that was published from 1936 to 1966.

#GreenBookPHL Collage

The Green Book empowered African Americans to “vacation without aggravation.” The guide helped travelers, including musicians, athletes and businesspeople, navigate Jim Crow laws in the South and racial segregation in the North. “Your Rights, Briefly Speaking!” is a precursor to the current mantra to “know your rights.”

Your Rights, Briefly Speaking (1963-1964)

A network of postal workers scouted out advertisers for the travel guide. Green Book listings included hotels, restaurants, nightclubs, theaters, barber shops and beauty parlors. Green envisioned a time when his publication would no longer be necessary:

There will be a day sometime in the near future when this guide will not have to be published. That is when we as a race will have equal opportunities and privileges in the United States. It will be a great day for us to suspend this publication for then we can go wherever we please, and without embarrassment. But until that time comes we shall continue to publish this information for your convenience each year.

That day did not come until July 2, 1964. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 prohibits discrimination in public accommodations.

Over the course of 30 years, there were dozens of Philadelphia listings. Some businesses advertised every year; others for one or multiple years. Drawing on archival materials and oral histories, we contextualize the social history of jazz. Green Book sites were sites of sanctuary. They were also sites of resistance.

All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will visit safe spaces in Center City and South Philly.

Douglass Hotel Bus Depot

The tour begins at the Bellevue-Stratford Hotel (now The Bellevue Philadelphia) and ends at the repurposed Attucks Hotel. Parenthetically, the architectural drawings for the Attucks Hotel are included in the Magaziner Collection of the Athenaeum of Philadelphia.

#GreenBookPHL Begin-End - Feature

Points of interest along the way include:

  • National historic landmark where John Coltrane and Benny Golson first heard Charlie Parker and Dizzy Gillespie;
  • Supper club that was a hangout for the producers and musicians who created “The Sound of Philadelphia”;
  • Hotel that welcomed jazz luminaries to its stage from the 1940s to the 1980s, and where Sidney Bechet, Coltrane and Grover Washington Jr. recorded live albums;
  • Hotels where Billie Holiday stayed and was arrested;
  • Jazz club that paid homage to postal workers and U.S. Postal Service;
  • Dive bar that is the setting for the Broadway play “Lady Day at Emerson’s Bar and Grill”;
  • Fraternal lodge where Bessie Smith’s funeral was held; and
  • Residence for African American women made possible with the financial support of John Wanamaker.

All That Philly Jazz Walking Tour: Green Book Edition will be held in September and October. The tour will be led by Faye Anderson, a storyteller who is passionate about uncovering hidden places and untold narratives.

#GreenBookPHL - Faye Anderson - Club 421

Join us as we walk and talk about a forgotten chapter of Philadelphia history.

Help Restore Nina Simone’s Childhood Home

From its birth, jazz has been at the intersection of race and social change. Nina Simone, the “High Priestess of Soul,” left a musical legacy that speaks to the current times. Indeed, the debate over segregationists, school busing and states’ rights harkens back to the days of “Old Jim Crow.”

The National Trust for Historic Preservation recently launched a crowdfunding campaign to restore Nina Simone’s childhood home in Tryon, North Carolina.

Your donation in any amount will help preserve Nina Simone’s story in public memory. For more information, please go here.

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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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.