Category Archives: Cultural Heritage Preservation

St. Peter Claver, Gentrification and Black History

First it was #PopeInPhilly. Now this: The Archdiocese of Philadelphia plans to put the oldest church for black Catholics on the auction block. St. Peter Claver Union was named after the “Apostle of the Slave Trade,” a 16th century Spanish Jesuit priest who fought against the slave trade.

St. Peter Claver Church Historical Marker

St. Peter Claver was an anchor in the community. Future blues legend Ethel Waters recounts in her autobiography, His Eye is on the Sparrow, that at age six, she was gravely ill with typhoid fever and double pneumonia. Her grandmother sent for Fr. Healey who baptized and anointed her.

In 1942, St. Peter Claver’s Catholic Church, Fifty Golden Years, a self-published history, was released:

It was also toward the end of the 19th century that a sizable population of blacks developed their own Catholic congregation in Philadelphia. Prior to 1886, black Catholics had worshiped in the parishes of St. Joseph, St. Mary, and St. Augustine in the city. In 1886, Holy Trinity Church, a traditionally German Catholic Church at 6th and Spruce, began holding a mass for blacks. The pastor of Holy Trinity, Father Hilterman, encouraged his black congregants to form their own union, which adopted the name St. Peter Claver Union, after the native of Catalonia, Spain, whose efforts in behalf of emancipation earned him the title, “Apostle of the Slave Trade.”

In July 29, 1889, Rev. Patrick McDermott, arrived in Philadelphia to take charge of the burgeoning black Catholic congregation at the request of Mother Katherine Drexel, founder of the Sisters of the Blessed Sacrament, after she visited Holy Ghost College (now Duquesne University) in Pittsburgh, PA. McDermott’s congregation began assembling in a small chapel in the second story of a home at 832 Pine Street in 1889, but it soon became too crowded, and the group began to look for a large church home.

When in 1890, the Fourth Presbyterian Church of Philadelphia offered its building at 12th and Lombard for sale, the congregation began to pool its resources to purchase it. When Patrick Quinn, treasurer of the Beneficial Savings Fund Society, one of Philadelphia’s largest banks at the time, died the same year, his will stipulated that $5,000 of his fortune was to go to the “proposed Colored Catholic Church of Philadelphia.” With donations from other well-to-do Philadelphians and loan from a bank, the congregation managed to assemble the funds to purchase Fourth Presbyterian Church at 12th and Lombard, which was dedicated as St. Peter Claver’s Church, Philadelphia’s first black Catholic church, on January 3, 1892.

Fast forward to today. The Archdiocese is in Orphans’ Court petitioning for the removal of racial language in the deeds that would rewrite history.

Arlene Edmonds, community historian and author of the African American Catholic Youth Bible, told Sabrina Vourvoulias of Philadelphia Magazine:

I feel a special connection because I’ve always been interested in historical sites, particularly the Underground Railroad and the sites that were built from by those enslaved Africans who creatively masterminded their escapes. Setting foot in St. Peter Claver one can feel it is part of that lineage. As a Catholic, so many of the earliest African connections to the faith have been overpowered by Western traditions after the faith was embraced by Europeans. Most American Catholic churches are centered around a Eurocentric interpretation of the faith.

Then you have a St. Peter Claver Church that was donated to the Black community for the purpose of evangelizing to African Americans. They lived in Philadelphia during the antebellum era, were among those who escaped along the Underground Railroad, or who migrated here later from the south as well as the Caribbean and Latin America. This was their church before there was an Archdiocese of Philadelphia [emphasis added]. It housed their history in photographs and artifacts. To have that taken from us is very sad. That is why many feel as I do, that others are trying to erase our history even those who say they share our faith.

I don’t share Edmonds’ faith, but I share her concern that gentrification is erasing African American history. Rev. Mark Kelly Tyler, pastor of Mother Bethel AME Church, is host of “Urban Insight” on 900amWURD. In an interview with Edmonds, Rev. Tyler observed:

St. Peter Claver is sandwiched between Big Wesley and Mother Bethel. The neighborhood is awash with great history of founding events in the black community. It’s an American story. We must help the Archdiocese find a different way to deal with this property.

Given the givens, I put my faith in Orphans’ Court. So I filed an objection to the Archdiocese’s Petition for Cy Pres.

Black Wall Street and the Blues

June is Black Music Month. This June marks the 95th anniversary of the Tulsa Race Riot of 1921. For two days (May 31-June 1), white vigilantes massacred black residents, looted and burned to the ground the most prosperous black community in the United States.

The riot took place in the Greenwood District, known as the Black Wall Street, the heart of which was bounded by Greenwood Avenue, and Archer and Pine streets. Tulsa natives, brothers Charlie, Ronnie and Robert Wilson’s group — The GAP Band — pays tribute to one of the worst race riots in U.S. history.

Black Wall Street, a hotbed for jazz and blues, was a stop on the famed Chitlin’ Circuit. Bandleader Walter Barnes was one of the most colorful characters on “the stroll.”

Walter Barnes and his Creolians

In his book, The Chitlin’ Circuit: and the Road to Rock ‘n’ Roll, Preston Lauterbach writes:

The tour [Walter Barnes and his Royal Creolians] kicked off in Tulsa, Oklahoma, the week before Thanksgiving, where Barnes found “Black Wall Street” bustling. “Greenwood is the name of the colored district of Tulsa, and one can get anything here from a shoe shine up.” Barnes highlighted the stroll’s musicians, dance promoters, dance halls, and its dentists, barbers, pharmacies, cafes, cab companies, and lodgings, always stressing the up-to-date. “I stopped with my entire orchestra at the modern and exclusive Small Hotel” in Tulsa, “one of the best equipped in the country, having newest electrical fixtures, telephone in each room, bath in every room, and modernistic furniture.” The Kings of Swing played the Crystal Palace Ballroom, “the last word in beauty,” and hung around the Goodie Goodie Club, Cotton Club, and Del Rio. “There’s plenty niteries here.”

In 1940, Barnes was killed in a fire while performing at the Rhythm Club in Natchez, Mississippi. The tragedy was memorialized in tribute songs by blues musicians, including Howlin’ Wolf and John Lee Hooker.

2016 NEA Jazz Master Archie Shepp

The 2016 NEA Jazz Masters were honored at a tribute concert at the John F. Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts.

This year’s class includes Archie Shepp who grew up in West Philadelphia. During an NEA interview, Shepp talked about jazz and Philadelphia:

The music that we call jazz has always been important in the African American community, especially in the poorer neighborhoods.

There was a lot of racism and prejudice, but a lot of music, a lot of blues and some good times. Music was all over Philadelphia. You could go down to North Philadelphia and hear young John Coltrane or Johnny Coles, Jimmy Oliver, Jimmy Heath. I suppose that’s what jazz is all about, suffering and good times, and somehow making the best of all of that.

At the tribute concert for Benny Carter, I got a chance to spend some time with Shepp during the break. He reminisced about the jam sessions at the Heath Brothers’ Family Home. He shared that he learned how to play chords from Coltrane and Lee Morgan.

Truth be told, Philadelphia’s contribution to jazz is mostly an untold story. We must capture stories about Philly’s jazz scene while those who know the history are still here.

April is National Poetry Month

April is Jazz Appreciation Month. It’s also National Poetry Month.

National Poetry Month 2016

It’s probably no coincidence the two art forms are celebrated during the same month. After all, the Harlem Renaissance gave birth to jazz poetry. The most celebrated jazz poet is Langston Hughes who collaborated with jazz musicians, including Charles Mingus and Thelonious Monk.

In his 1926 essay, “The Negro Artist and the Racial Mountain,” Hughes wrote:

But jazz to me is one of the inherent expressions of Negro life in America; the eternal tom-tom beating in the Negro soul—the tom-tom of revolt against weariness in a white world, a world of subway trains, and work, work, work; the tom-tom of joy and laughter, and pain swallowed in a smile.

In 1958, Hughes recorded his poem, “The Weary Blues,” over jazz composed by Mingus and Leonard Feather.

Also, check out a reading of “The Weary Blues” by Rev. Dr. Allen Dwight Callahan, a Philly native and former professor at Harvard Divinity School.

Jazz Appreciation Month 2016

Since 2002, April has been designated on Jazz Appreciation Month. The Smithsonian will kick off the celebration with a salute to Benny Carter:

To kick off Jazz Appreciation Month 2016, the Smithsonian Jazz Masterworks Orchestra salutes the masterworks of this year’s featured poster artist, the innovative saxophonist, trumpeter, composer, and arranger, Benny Carter. Affectionately known as “King,” Benny Carter was a major contributor in the development of jazz. As a musician, he helped shape the alto sax as a solo instrument in jazz; as a composer, he helped create the vocabulary of swing; and as a bandleader and arranger he broke down racial boundaries in jazz and spread the music around the world. As Miles Davis once said, “everyone should listen to Benny Carter, he’s a whole music education.

Carter’s legacy includes arranging the music for the Hollywood film “Stormy Weather.”

Stormy Weather

To find new ways to celebrate Jazz Appreciation Month, visit Smithsonian Jazz or JAM at the National Museum of American History.

U.S. Postal Service Tribute to Sarah Vaughan

On March 29, 2016, at the Sarah Vaughan Concert Hall at Newark Symphony Hall, the United States Postal Service released the Sarah Vaughan Forever Stamp.

Sarah Vaughan - Available Now

Deputy Postmaster General Ronald Stroman dedicated the stamp:

As one of the most compelling vocalists in American history, Sarah Vaughan was renowned for her artistic eloquence. Her dynamic vocal range, iconic vibrato, and innovative phrasing helped to transform jazz and popular music. The Postal Service is proud to honor Sarah Vaughan. Let this stamp serve as a lasting tribute to her legacy.

Trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, who played with Miss Vaughan when he was 21 years old, sent a video tribute:

It’s only fitting that Sarah Vaughan is being memorialized with a forever stamp. She was great on so many levels. In honoring her, we honor ourselves. And her talent is truly forever.

The Sarah Vaughan Forever stamp is available at local post offices or online.