Originally called Decoration Day, Memorial Day was first observed on May 1, 1865 in Charleston, South Carolina.
Thousands of African Americans, including the formerly enslaved, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment, and the 34th and 104th United States Colored Troops, were led by children as they gathered to honor 257 Union soldiers who were buried in a mass grave behind the grandstand of the city’s Washington Race Course. The ancestors paid tribute to those who gave their lives by decorating their graves, hence Declaration Day.
May is Historic Preservation Month. This year’s theme is People Saving Places. In Philadelphia, four people are ripping each other apart in court filings while the John Coltrane House continues to deteriorate. It’s particularly disheartening that Ravi and Oran Coltrane have dragged the estate of their father’s beloved “Cousin Mary,” Mary L. King, into the courtroom drama.
Ravi and Oran are using their fundraising against them claiming the $855,000 raised is “part of their plans to profit from the Coltrane House.” At the same time, John Coltrane’s sons cite my work to dispute the defendants’ counterclaim for $220,877.11 for “the expenses [Aminta Weldon] and her parents have incurred in maintaining, renovating and insuring the property.” They question “whether the purported expenses even satisfied the basic upkeep of the Coltrane House.”
This increasingly nasty family feud is in the name of preserving the John Coltrane House.
In 2011, the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) designated April 30 as International Jazz Day “in order to highlight jazz and its diplomatic role of uniting people in all corners of the globe.”
The U.S. State Department sponsored jazz icons, including Louis Armstrong, Duke Ellington, Dizzy Gillespie, Quincy Jones and Sarah Vaughan, to travel the world as cultural ambassadors to combat racially-charged Soviet propaganda during the Cold War. Their mission was at the intersection of race, civil rights and public diplomacy.
To commemorate International Jazz Day, I nominated Lee Morgan’s The Sidewinder for inclusion in the National Recording Registry of the Library of Congress. Recordings selected are “culturally, historically or aesthetically significant.”
A year ago, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney planned to award a $500,000 no-bid commission for a permanent Harriet Tubman statue to a white artist, Wesley Wofford, who has never won a public commission for a Tubman statue. After sustained agitation, the Office of Arts, Culture and the Creative Economy (OACCE) reversed course and issued an Open Call. Wofford was among the 50 artists who responded to the Open Call. The five semi-finalists were announced on March 31, 2023. Wofford didn’t make the cut. He’s now batting 0 for 24 public commissions for Harriet Tubman statues.
All of the semi-finalists—Vinnie Bagwell, Richard Blake, Tanda Francis, Alvin Pettit and Basil Watson—are Black. The public is invited to attend a virtual public input meeting with the artists.
The Zoom webinar will provide an opportunity for the artists “to hear directly from the public before they create initial design proposals for the Harriet Tubman statue. The winning proposal will become a statue that will be located on the northeast apron of City Hall and the first statue of a Black female historical figure in the City’s public art collection. OACCE encourages all Philadelphians to be a part of this historic public art commission for the City by attending this public meeting and making your voice heard.”
The public input meeting will be held on Monday, April 24, 2023 at 5:30pm ET. RSVP for the Zoom webinar here.
April is Jazz Appreciation Month (JAM), a time to increase awareness and appreciation for jazz as a uniquely American art form that is rooted in the Black experience. JAM was first celebrated in 2001. This year’s poster, “Jazzed about Art,” features Miles Davis.
Davis’ 1959 album, “Kind of Blue,” was one of the four albums that changed jazz forever.
“Kind of Blue” is the best-selling jazz album of all time. It has sold over five million copies. Several of the songs from the album, including “So What,” have become jazz standards.
Philly Celebrates Jazz is the city’s annual celebration of Jazz Appreciation Month.
On April 3, 1968, Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. told Black people:
We’ve got some difficult days ahead. But it doesn’t matter with me now. Because I’ve been to the mountaintop. And I don’t mind. Like anybody, I would like to live a long life. Longevity has its place. But I’m not concerned about that now. I just want to do God’s will. And He’s allowed me to go up to the mountain. And I’ve looked over. And I’ve seen the Promised Land. I may not get there with you. But I want you to know tonight, that we, as a people, will get to the Promised Land. And I’m happy, tonight. I’m not worried about anything. I’m not fearing any man. Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord.
Less than 24 hours later, the “King of Love” was assassinated as he stood on a balcony at the Lorraine Motel in Memphis.
March is Women in Jazz Month, a time to celebrate the contributions of women to jazz.
As a lifelong activist, I want to celebrate the role that women in jazz played in paving the way for the Civil Rights Movement. Billie Holiday’s “Strange Fruit,” written by Abel Meeropol, is the first protest song.
Ethel Waters’ “Supper Time” is not well-known. Written by Irving Berlin especially for Waters, the song is about a wife’s grief over the lynching of her husband.
For Lady Day and Ethel Waters, Black Lives always mattered.
As Black History Month comes to a close, a threat to teaching African American history is looming in Pennsylvania. In the last session of the Pennsylvania legislature, a conservative lawmaker introduced the Teaching Racial and Universal Equality Act which would limit how teachers discuss racism and sexism, and ban schools from hosting speakers who advocate “racist or sexist concepts.” Republican State Rep. Russ Diamond said his bill is “aimed at curtailing the divisive nature of concepts more commonly known as ‘critical race theory’.” Diamond likely cannot spell “CRT.” Critical race theory is an academic framework for examining how racism is embedded in law, public policy and institutions.
Not to be outdone, Republican State Rep. Parke Wentling, one of four state lawmakers on the 12-member Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission, wants to privatize the state agency’s historical marker program which recognizes people, places and events that have statewide or national significance. In a 2021 op-ed Wentling wrote:
Rather than have the official arm of the state be the arbiter of history, perhaps it is time for the commission to get out of the marker business entirely and find a way to privatize our historical recognitions.
The Pennsylvania Historical and Museum Commission’s blue and gold historical markers are public history lessons. For many Americans, the markers are their only exposure to African American history and culture.
In a recent op-ed published in The Philadelphia Inquirer, I wrote:
For only the second time in its history, the Pennsylvania Historical and Museum announced in November that it was “temporarily pausing” the program because of “ongoing supply chain issues” affecting the production of the iconic blue-and-gold markers. I contacted the agency this week to check on the program’s status; spokesperson Howard Pollman told me, “There is no timetable as to when the temporary hiatus will be lifted.”
To me, the open-ended suspension — coupled with the vague language in the November announcement that the agency “will be reviewing the marker program in the interest of continuous improvement” — raises a red flag.
I believe Wentling’s screed is of a piece with a bill introduced in the last session by Republican State Rep. Russ Diamond, which seeks to prevent our schools from teaching “critical race theory.” Some politicians want to erase the progress made in telling a more inclusive American story by attacking a conceptual framework for the teaching of Black history. I fear these culture wars will escalate as the 2024 presidential election heats up.
Like most enslaved people, Frederick Douglass did not know his date of birth. He assumed he was born in 1818. Douglass chose to celebrate his birthday on February 14. The first Douglass Day was observed in 1897.
In December, Philadelphia250 announced the winners of its “Leave a Legacy” competition. The three finalists will each receive $250,000. The projects focus on immigrants, Special Olympics, and toys for children. Philadelphia250, without a single historian on its staff or board of directors, claims they are “setting the stage for Philly’s most high-profile event in decades.” African Americans make up 40 percent of the City’s population but they will play a bit part in official celebrations.
Philadelphia250 whitewashing the country’s origin story is of a piece with Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis’ rejection of the College Board’s Advanced Placement course in African American studies. To honor Douglass’ legacy of resistance and agitation, I will file Right-to-Know requests to try to find out why the organization that is planning Philadelphia’s Fourth of July semiquincentennial celebration excluded Thomas Jefferson’s enslaved valet, Robert Hemings, who was with him at Declaration (Graff) House where Jefferson wrote the nation’s founding document. The nonprofit is not subject to Pennsylvania’s open records law but some of its board members are.
Still in his early teens, James Forten was a powder boy during the Revolutionary War. The Museum of the American Revolution’s new exhibition, “Black Founders: The Forten Family of Philadelphia,” chronicles the life of this revolutionary figure who was present at the first public reading of the Declaration of Independence on July 8, 1776.
Like Forten, Crispus Attucks, the first person to die in the American Revolution, and Cyrus Bustill, who served in the Continental Army, are invisible to Philadelphia250.
George Washington’s enslaved valet and aide-de-camp, William Lee, who is depicted in Emanuel Leutze’s painting, “Washington Crossing the Delaware,” is not represented.
Black Revolutionary War patriots are not honored by Philadelphia250. Instead, they awarded Smith Memorial Playground & Playhouse $250,000 to teach children about “revolutionary action figures.” The action figures include wannabe political candidate Ya Fav Trashman.
You can’t make this stuff up. The struggle continues.