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.
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.
Last week I attended a preview of a new exhibit, Civil War and Reconstruction: The Battle for Freedom and Equality .
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Fast forward to today, Philadelphia Mayor Jim Kenney does nothing as black presence is erased from public spaces.
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.
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.
The struggle continues.
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.
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.
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.
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